We live in an ageist culture. It’s not only that we’re terrified of death and hurry to sequester the topic away under the nearest rock or stuff it into the closest corner; it’s that, in a culture that reveres youth, beauty, and physical perfection, we fear aging itself. We fear the lines that inevitably appear on faces. We fear the roundness and softness of skin and bodies. We fear the gray hairs that sprout out as if to say, “Welcome to aging! No matter what you do, you won’t be able to fight the passage of time.” But we live in a culture that encourages us to fight it: to dye, exercise, and Botox the signs of aging away as quickly as they begin.
Like caring about what others think, absorbing other people’s lives, the fear of failure, and the addiction to perfection, the fear of aging is another byproduct of living in a culture that is largely informed by the externalization of self. The underlying and pervasive message is that our worth is based on externals – how well we do in school, how much money we make, who we marry (and that we marry at all), what we look like – and we’re conditioned from an early age to follow the timeline and expectations of the culture, which don’t allow for coloring outside the lines and following our own needs, preferences, and temperament. It’s an externally-referenced model at every turn.
Of course, this extends to the aging process. If self-worth is based on smooth skin and non-gray hair, what happens when age exacts its claim? If our self-worth is attached to any external, and we know that one of the principles of life on this planet is that we’re subject to the ever-changing river of impermanence, it becomes immediately clear that our reliance on externals for self-worth is a recipe for emptiness, self-doubt, and, of course, anxiety.
This is not the case in every culture. One of my favorite parts of the documentary “Happy” – and I loved the entire film from start to finish – was the section on the culture of Okinawa, Japan, where they discussed that one of the secrets to their renowned longevity and basic sense of wellness is their respect for the elderly. Elderly people are seen as carriers of wisdom and, as such, are regarded as treasures in the culture. They even have a national holiday called “Respect for the Aged Day” where elderly people are honored throughout the community with parties and gifts. There seems to be a widespread understanding in the culture that getting older is not something to hide and feel ashamed of but is an achievement worthy of celebration, and so people don’t fear aging as much as we do here in the West. As May Sarton writes, “My neighbor’s wish to be known forever as thirty-nine years old made me think again of what K said in her letter about the people in their thirties mourning their lost youth because we have given them no ethos that makes maturity appear as an asset.” And it’s not only that maturity isn’t seen as an asset; it’s seen as a liability.
Over the last few weeks, as I approached my 47th birthday and thought about aging, one particular image kept coming to mind: my son’s Bar Mitzvah over the summer when my ring of soul-sisters gathered from all parts of the country and we danced in a circle under a white tent, and as I looked around – at our beautifully aging faces, our lines and gray hair and rounder bodies – I felt such a surge of tenderness for our vulnerability and also for the unspeakable blessing of moving through the ages together. From elementary school through adolescence, into twenties, thirties, forties and beyond, we have held each other through every dark night and celebrated every joy to arrive at that moment of celebrating my fourteen year old son’s transition into adulthood. The wisdom we’ve gleaned lives in our faces, our triumphs speak through our bodies, our hair tells the stories of our traumas and joys. There is no part of these sacred bodies that do not tell and carry our stories, the strands of our history that comprise the quilt of our lives.
The culture tells us that the process of aging is something to be avoided and feared, but what could possibly be loathsome about the blessing of growing old together? In seeking to erase the evidence of our stories, the culture tells us to silence our voices, our wisdom, our songs. We will not be silenced.As Marion Woodman says, “Tell the image makers and magazine sellers and the plastic surgeons that you are not afraid. That what you fear the most is the death of imagination and originality and metaphor and passion. Then be bold and LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT. It was never broken.”
We think that what we fear most is the aging process or death itself, but what we truly fear – what causes soul-quaking and heart-withering – is the death of imagination. What we fear most is the lack of wisdom and sources of true connection that help us tap into this wisdom. What we long for is the poetry of being alive, the poetry that helps us make sense of being alive. What we crave in our cells is not youth or physical perfection but the inner rudders and outer guideposts – the rituals, the dreams, the metaphors – that teach us to live life more fully and to inhabit the blessing of these bodies through each stage of life.
The evening before my birthday, as I crossed the threshold from forty-six to forty-seven, I sat with my Colorado sisters, in ritual, in circle, with our hearts opened like petals as we reflected together on what it means to age, on stepping into new stages of life, on motherhood and children and how to let go and come back to the central column of Self. They held me in their love and through the ache I feel every year at the waning light, the ache that weeps my heart at the awareness of the passage of time, and I breathed into the blessing of allowing my community to catch the ball of my ache in their rainbow parachute and bounce it back up as joy.
Sheryl Paul has guided thousands of people worldwide through the terrain of anxiety through her private practice, her books, her e-courses and her blog. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top media shows and publications around the globe. In 1997, she graduated from Pacifica Graduate Institute, a program which specializes in Jungian depth psychology, with a master’s degree in counseling. Sheryl and her husband raise their two boys in Colorado. You can learn more through her website at conscious-transitions.com.