It will be my birthday this month. In celebration I will be posting excerpts from a longer piece I wrote a few months ago. (This is an excerpt from Age: A Manifesto)
“Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole life.” –Erik Erickson
How old are you? This question seems to be one of the greatest curiosities of mankind. I wonder how old she is? How old is he? You have probably asked an age related question today, or at least wondered it to yourself. No one can blame you. We as a culture obsess over age. When a person meets a child, often the first question we ask them is, how old are you. Every time you turn on a reality TV show, news story or a documentary you see the person’s name and age onscreen. These two facts seem to satisfy our sometimes subconscious craving to label others.
Is this simply harmless curiosity or one of the great tragedies of our time? I would argue the latter. Age allows people to put others conveniently in a box. Age allows you to judge others and apply self-limiting beliefs. Age, for most of our lives, is something we obsess about, brag about and depress about. Does age really deserve so much attention?
Notice the emotion in yourself when I ask you your age. Take a few minutes to answer the following two questions: How old are you? How do you feel about your age?
If you deem yourself young, you may feel happy that time is on your side. Our culture worships youth and this makes you feel joy. If you label yourself as old you may feel a slight twinge of sadness or panic. You may not even want to answer that question on paper. I too am guilty of not wanting to tell people my age. I have not cured cancer, made The New York Times Best Seller list (yet), earned fistfuls of money or climbed a corporate ladder. This relates to age because when the question is asked, what people really want to know is, how am I doing compared to you.
Age is a vile question disguised as innocent curiosity.
You could just ask, “Am I doing better than you, or are you doing better than me?” The response will either be, “You still have plenty of time to do X,” or “You look so young! I thought you were X! Well it is never too late (you poor soul).” I reveled in the rays of jealousy when someone used to ask me my age. I loved the look of hidden envy when they would reply, “Oh, you are just a baby!” I would laugh uncomfortably, yet satisfied, that I was what my society deemed young and in my “prime.” Youth seemed to be an intoxicating aroma that the world lined up to have the privilege to inhale.
If you don’t already know the answer, you may be wondering how old I actually am. The question may be killing you. I may or may not reveal my age at the end of these posts. I realize you can quite easily find out using the internet and a quick Google search. I imagine you have a guess. I implore you to indulge my request not to find the answer. Not because I am depressed or boastful, but because I know your experience of these words will be greatly influenced by your judgement of my age. My goal is that by the end of our time together you will not care how old I am or how old you are, and that even if you know the answer, you will be aware of your judgement.
Let us remember that age is really an invention of mankind. Ask your dog how old she or he is and wait for the reply. Even if Fido could speak English I doubt a satisfactory response would follow. I imagine Fido would reply confused, “What do you mean? I just am.” Do you think our intelligent friends in the animal kingdom tally their years? They may mourn a loss in the herd or flock but they certainly don’t grow depressed before the fact.
Psychologist Erik Erickson has argued that the western fear of aging keeps us from living full lives. He wrote, “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole life.” This is the problem with age. Aging is not the problem, but that we do so in a state of constant resistance. We obsessively keep track of our age and as so eloquently sung in a John Mayer lyric, “Play the numbers game to say that life has just begun.” This resistance is constantly supported by a culture that buys people “you are over the hill” joke birthday cards and gift cards for plastic surgery. The cosmetics industry sells “youth” to the old and ugly.
Instead of being looked at and treated with respect, the older we get the more irrelevant and pitied we become. Do you think you are old? The words I am so old, have been uttered by seniors graduating from high school, college students entering the work force, new parents and every day by people leaving one decade and entering the next. Clearly being old is relative. The elephant in the room of course is that our resistance to aging is that death seems closer. Need I remind you that none of us has any idea how much time we have left on this earth. The sad fact is that the 19-year-old may die tomorrow and the 80-year-old may live another 10 fruitful and joy filled years. Once you truly can internalize this fact, I suspect your next birthday may be more of a celebration than a curse.
I want to acknowledge the fact that the body and energy levels do change as you age. However, as chronicled in a great piece in Outside Magazine, age truly is irrelevant when it comes to fitness. The article states, “All of the books in my survey echo a common refrain: “Use it or lose it,” with one twist. Don’t just use it-push it.” Many depressing examples of old age, come from folks who just let themselves go. You can either be an 80-year-old ballroom dancer or because of age related self-limiting beliefs, practically live at the hospital. The choice, for the most part, is truly your own. I know we all know this, but why do we still hate birthdays, insult young people and old people because of their age, and obsess over a number? It doesn’t have to be this way and it begins with you. I have had the great fortune of traveling extensively around the world and have reveled at how other cultures live their lives as it relates to age. Here at home, practitioners of the present moment are redefining what it means to age and do so with an inspiring embrace of life. I suspect we have much to learn, but being aware of the problem is a great place to start.
Sources: PhychologyToday.com and OutsideOnline.com
For more check out the free 20 page piece, AGE: A Manifesto here.