Mind Matters — Aging’s Beauty

Ah, youth! We are a youth culture: Botox in, wrinkles out. Little do we acknowledge, as the great philosophers have, that as soon as we're born we are aging: we are “beings towards death!” The aging process cannot be reversed (except if you are Benjamin Button). At first, as children, we can't wait until we are older. What seven-year-old doesn't wish to be nine? What thirteen-year-old doesn't want to be sixteen and driving?

However, once we travel past the childhood yearning, we may begin to fear aging and try desperately to turn back time. John Welshons, author of One Soul, One Love, One Heart, says,

“For many the process of aging gives rise to a complex of … culturally inspired neuroses. Our culture has defined youth and beauty as all important and aging as a catastrophe. We have foolishly made the assumption that we are happiest and most valuable in our youth.”

Welshons continues, reporting that while we attempt to cling to the physical appearance of youth, research contraindicates our pursuit. Ironically, psychological studies point out that we are least happy in our adolescent and young adult years and most happy in our sixties!

Now in her sixties herself, Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, in an interview with Bill Moyers (Bill Moyers’ Journal, pbs.org), talks about the “third chapter of life”. Noting that these are arbitrary boundaries, she characterizes the ages between fifty and seventy-five as the penultimate years of adventure and discovery. To support her hypothesis, Lawrence-Lightfoot set out to talk to forty people who are on this journey. She relates their stories in her book, The Third Chapter.

Like Welshons, she considers ours to be a youth-obsessed culture. Perhaps they would both agree that letting go of power and status, or leaving behind our old roles, may, at first, be terrifying, yet necessary. Where Welshons may take us aging into quiet wisdom and spiritual reflection, Lawrence-Lightfoot enjoins us to be seekers of new paths. However, for some, that unexplored road may well lead to a deeper spirituality. Lawrence-Lightfoot tells us about a woman who was delighted to transform her busy-ness and allow herself to slow down, be still, and witness. All this helped her to see things in a new way.

What Lawrence-Lightfoot found in her interviews was that people were finding life to be creative and purposeful. She met a laid off factory worker who, with his wife, frequented flea markets to get by. One day he noticed some sculptures and thought to himself, “I could do that with metal.” So he began to sculpture dinosaurs, his love. Eventually, his works were shown in an art gallery.

Along with a lot of other baby boomers, I am aging. Like it or not, America is aging. As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes:

“Americans living longer and staying increasingly active and productive is a welcome sign for our nation. However, society's view of old age has not always kept up with the reality of older Americans’ health or the fact that while many people over the age of 65 experience some limitations, they learn to live with them and lead happy and productive lives.”

With Welshons and Lawrence-Lightfoot we can take heart. Even the APA is in accord: wisdom and creativity can often continue to the very end of life:

Nah, youth! Ah, the beauty of aging!