It’s an interesting thing to grow into middle age. Gazing into that mirror every day and seeing the aging process right before my eyes: the slow but steady sagging, the wrinkles and crinkles, the fading, the whitening, the fattening and thinning (in all the wrong places)...all the while knowing there is nothing to be done. I don’t want to enter into that particular camp of fighting aging artificially, surgically, invasively. But I can understand why people do. Our western culture worships the young and relegates the old to the margins of society. Becoming the brunt of jokes, so many elderly are simply tolerated and patronized. So few seem to understand how to grow old gracefully and joyfully that it seems it has been an altogether lost lesson for the next generation. What example do we have before us anymore? There is one, and only one, message communicated from every sphere of life: fight, fight, fight! Fight getting old with all your might! Buy these vitamins, take this pill, slather this cream on your face, go to this class, drink this concoction, “pilate” and “yoga” yourself half to death, listen to this podcast for tips and tricks, and if all else fails, put yourself on a table under a knife.
Look, I’m not judging. That’s why I’m writing this. I’m writing to myself more than anyone else. I’m writing to convince myself there is another way, and maybe if I put this string of words together in just the right order, it can become a key that unlocks a place in my heart of acceptance and even embracing the coming season of life. Because without that acceptance, I could find myself spending precious time and energy fighting a losing battle, wasting years trying to undo what cannot be undone.
I don’t believe that the measures we use to stay young are bad in and of themselves, and taking care of the “temple” is of utmost importance. But the reason behind doing all those things exposes the truth that I cannot escape from. I fight this process because I think less of myself for aging. As if I say to the mirror, “How dare you let that line deepen under your left eye? What is wrong with you? How can you let the scale say that number? You’re so weak! Work harder and stronger! You can beat this! You can fight aging and win!”
There’s an uncomfortable revelation here: if I am not careful, I associate aging with failure. I think of aging as a weakness that I am somehow meant to overcome. Aging is a process I am called to fight against and then have victory over. God help me, I even use prayer and Bible verses as weapons against it. Have you heard this teaching in church? “Sarah was beautiful and desirable until she was 90 years old! We are supposed to be like Sarah! God wants the same for all of us!” Are you kidding me? Seriously, do we think that and teach people that? God have mercy on us! Extrapolating from scripture one woman that God obviously used in a miraculous and extremely abnormal way and making her into our example? Next thing you know we will be praying our teenage daughters get pregnant under the power of the Holy Spirit...
In earlier years and in other cultures, aging was (and continues to be for some) so prized and respected that people actually look forward to that honored position. In Native American cultures, and eastern nations such as Korea and China, there are examples of aged ones who are respected and cherished for their wisdom and contributions to understanding life.* Elders have a position of great honor at the head of the family, and they are sought after for their advice and breadth of knowledge. They are celebrated and cared for. The aging process is seen in a holistic way, with the end of life just as important as the beginning. I’m not saying that in these cultures people don’t also fight to stay young, but at least they have something to look forward to as the middle years set in, and there is grace and honor for what is happening built into the fabric of their cultures.
But in the west? Try as hard as I can, I cannot find this built into our culture. What I find instead are shows like Dr. Oz and his “Guess this woman’s age!” game. Women come out on stage, looking beautiful, fit, young. “Can anyone guess Jane’s age? She’s 50 and doesn’t look a day past 30!” And we ooh and aah, and think to ourselves: I don’t look like Jane. I have love handles and gray hair and crow’s feet. What’s wrong with me? You want to know something? I am beginning to think there’s something very twisted and disturbing about the deep cultural belief that “to age well” means that you look younger than you are... We’re fed it, we absorb it--all without question, without reflection.
But why? Why is it bad to be 48 years old and look 48 years old? How can that be in any way, shape, or form a bad thing, a thing to fight? We want our 5 year olds to look 5 and our 10 year olds to look 10. And then in adolescence, we always want to look older for crying out loud! At what age do the tables turn? At 22? Perhaps 25? For sure by 30...My friend Kristina got her hair cut and people started telling her she looked younger. They said it as a compliment. You know what the problem is? Kristina is all of 24 years old! God in heaven help us if a 24 year old should make it her goal to look younger!
How do we change this deep-seated, aggressive, and pervasive culture of “fetishizing youth?”* I don’t have easy answers. I do have a mirror I look in every day that I can begin to have a much better relationship with. Much kinder and gentler, accepting and understanding. I can also enjoy the position of honor I hold from the younger ones around me that look to me as an example. Without pontification and patronization, I can give the fullness of my wisdom that carries the notes of sincerity and truth paid for with life experience. I can begin to set a tone and example for others of that “noble wife” from Proverbs 31 who “laughs at the days to come.”** There is something very striking about these words from the ancient writer that I used to gloss over, and now find myself fascinated by. This, much more than the example of sexually-desirable 90 year old Sarah, seems a better fit for a follower of Christ who is living in the middle or later years of life.
All that being said, I doubt I'll throw away all my creams and concoctions anytime soon, and I will still strive to take care of myself and stay fit and healthy as long as the Lord allows me the ability. I do believe it brings Him great honor to look and feel our personal best. However, I also know that He gives special measures of His grace at all seasons of life, and I can hand over the reins of control to Him and trust Him to lead me into aging with dignity. He didn’t promise a life free of wrinkles or gray hair--he promised instead that old age was a sign of blessing from Him.
And so with all the most noble ones who have gone this way before me, I look into the days ahead, take a deep breath--and laugh.