Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On Age and Beauty

...You don't look a day older!

Should we take this at face value?  Sometimes "a cigar is just a cigar," so the saying goes, and we simply don't look like we've aged.  Still, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone insincerely complemented another on their semblance of youth.  Our obsession with the extent to which our appearance may or may not convey our number of times around the sun is of particular concern to me...  I am as guilty as the next of having willingly consumed the media's shameless portrayal of idealized and superficial beauty, and it doesn't resemble anyone over 35 years of age...

While there can certainly be something beautiful to appreciate about the appearance of youth, our culture, in its varying degrees of spiritual bankruptcy, seems to have forgotten to notice and value the brilliant potential for beauty throughout an entire human life-span.

We've "sterilized" the most magical and mysterious moments of our lives, birth and death, and secreted away the "mess" to specialized "birthing" places and nursing homes.

When did the truth of where we come from and where we are all headed become "gross?"  When did we first start thinking we know more than our elders?  How did we collectively forget how to breast feed?  When did our society begin to segregate senior citizens?  When did some women start thinking it would be a better idea to schedule a cesarean section than to patiently await a vaginal delivery, when given the option?  When did we start to fear and loathe old age?  My point in raising these rhetorical questions is, simply, to suggest that we have lost our way.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite Monty Python routines from their film, "The Meaning of Life," in which a mother in labor asks the physician "...what should I do?" to which he replies "'re not qualified!"  Enough said...

...Let's be is beauty, and old is old, right?

Sort of yes, but not necessarily... what humans define as "beautiful" seems to vary dramatically from place to place and from one time in history to another.  Even within a certain time and place, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," so to speak.  So, rather than placing too much emphasis on this ever-shifting notion of superficial beauty, which is fleeting even in the best case, let's consider other ways to speak about aging and beauty that are more practical and realistic.  There are so many ways to thrive in our senior years, and all of them involve learning how to graciously and gratefully accept our place in life.

What does it look like to age gracefully and beautifully?  

It looks like new learning, physical activity, social engagement, spiritual fellowship, family, and play.  I received a recent email from a friend with a link to a video of an 86 year old female gymnast.  It is truly remarkable and delightful to watch.

Throughout the years, I've made a point of asking unusually vital seniors for their secrets to aging so beautifully.  The answers have almost always been of a spiritual nature.  Typical responses were "don't sweat the small stuff," and "roll with the punches..."  Others simply point up to the heavens and smile, suggesting some sort of relationship they have with the Big Guy...

What to say to beautiful old people?

So I ran into a couple I haven't seen in 25 years, and they are truly radiant - what do I say?  The ones who are the most beautiful to me are not pretending to be young.  Those who are most attractive have "softened" with the years... they have mellowed in their growing wisdom... they stopped dying their hair brown and have begun to celebrate their hard-earned gray... they value their own wrinkles and appreciate that their faces now have more character... She stopped wearing spandex, and he lost the pony tail... they're both more attentive to the needs of others, and they've learned the difference between self-care and pleasure-seeking... they've accepted their mortality and have cultivated their sense of humor...

They laugh at themselves more easily and accept their weaknesses and imperfections... they celebrate and share their strength, experience, and hope with others who are available to receive... they look right into your eyes... they're bored with gossip... they love themselves and each other.  So here's what I say to them: "You look 25 years older, and you are more beautiful than ever."  Here's the cool part - I mean it.

David Lader - August 14, 2013

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