In 2006, Nora Ephron published a collection of essays entitled I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. Women of a certain age flocked to purchase it. While the essays were well-written and engaging, the real appeal was in the title. Every woman in midlife feels bad about her neck! Every woman in midlife is alarmed by all the signs of aging she sees. Whatever else we pretend, necks don’t lie. We look in the mirror and the evidence stares boldly back at us. We are getting older.
And we have been socialized to despair, to believe that aging is somehow an offensive, troubling and unpleasant phase of life that we should do everything in our power to ward off. We joke (in that not-so-funny way) that “it’s better than the alternative.” But that is such a grudging admission.
Isn’t it more, so much more than that? In interviews with the elderly conducted by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, men and women in their 80’s and 90’s reflect on aging. (as cited by Jane Brody, NY Times, 1/10/12, Advice From Life’s Graying Edge on Finishing With No Regrets). Despite their illnesses and infirmities, despite the loss of loved ones and their physical challenges, most found that old age “vastly exceeded their expectations.”
One 80-year-old man advised, “Embrace it. Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process.” A 92-year-old woman offered that “I think I’m happier now that I’ve ever been in my life. Things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important.” Yet another reminded us that “Each decade, each age, has opportunities that weren’t actually here in the previous time.”
I think that our attitude towards aging mirrors our attitude towards life in general; frequently we are either eagerly anticipating or awaiting with dread the next phase of life. If we would just embrace each opportunity and try to live in the moment, we would be much less tormented, much more at peace. (My husband is laughing as I write this, noting that this is clearly one of those “do as I say not as I do” pieces of wisdom.)
But I believe it’s the correct attitude. It’s ironic that we spend so much time trying to teach our daughters to de-emphasize the physical, to remind them that it is the soul not the body that counts, to focus them on their internal development and growth, yet we seem to forget that lesson ourselves at the sight of the first gray hair. (Can I complain for a moment how unfair it is that a woman like me who covers her hair should have no gray hair but a face full of wrinkles! But I fear I am missing the point…)
If it is true that our real self is our internal self, that our true value is our character and deeds and relationship with the Almighty, how much more should this be so at 50 or 60 when we have something to show for our time? Surely we don’t want to reduce a life spend giving and growing to the presence of crow’s feet and dreams of Botox. Isn’t it time to really put our money where our mouth is?
In the Jewish world, the older we are, the more respect we are allotted. Our wisdom and experience mean something. It may not be what Hollywood looks for in writers or actors but since when did we allow Hollywood to determine our value or values? And isn’t true beauty (even the physical aspect) just a reflection of how we feel inside? Doesn’t our sense of pleasure with our lives, our conviction that we are focused on what’s important, our trust in the Almighty, radiate outward? Don’t our faces show a life lived well, a life of meaning and purpose?
I don’t think we can live a productive existence and exert ourselves for others without incurring more than a few wrinkles along the way (I like to point out to each child the evidence of their adolescence!). I don’t think we can live of life of giving and kindness and true empathy with others without developing a few gray hairs (not to mention that ones you add when trying to marry off your children!). But most importantly, I don’t think we want to.
We are all challenged by a world that celebrates youth. But when I look back, I also see the particular mistakes, foolishness and arrogance that are unique to the young – and I am grateful not to be there any longer.
There is a price to getting older. We don’t look the same as we used to, no matter how often we exercise or how many expensive skin creams we purchase. But that’s really okay. We shouldn’t expect to. We have been fighting a war against our base inclinations and lower selves for many years now, we have been fighting against inertia and our negative emotions and inclinations to be the people we want to be. We may not have totally succeeded but we have won many of the battles. And we have the wounds and scars to show it. We really wouldn’t have it any other way. Although I do think mirrors in airplane bathrooms should be avoided at all costs…