I subscribe to a lovely little blog called Tiny Buddha, a daily offering of personal reflections which — as the name suggests — encourages self-awareness, compassion and spiritual growth. It was therefore disconcerting to find myself part of a pile-on aimed at a recent writer, who took as her subject the fear of aging.
Granted, her topic may have been ill-advised, because the writer is only 39, closer in time to Huggies than Depends. Also, she made the gaffe of quoting Jane Fonda – a poster child for cosmetic reparation who at 79 looks three decades younger — as a sage of graceful aging. And trotted out unfortunate pithyisms such as “age is just a number,” which is true in the same way that IQ and income are “just” numbers, rather than descriptors that substantially affect quality of life.
Yet the article was well-intentioned, and wise in some regards. And it wasn’t about the actual experience of aging, but fear of that experience — a distinction many of we older readers are apparently already too cognitively impaired to parse. As soon as we could gather our reading glasses and what remains of our wits, my not-quite-geriatric demographic and its older siblings began littering the “comments” section with objections.
“I think it is insulting that you wrote an article about aging when you are 39 years old and have yet to experience the difficulties and sorrow that can accompany menopause, the loss of loved ones and the hopes and dreams that did not come to pass,“ groused one reader.
“You touch on truths for sure, but only from a perspective of what has been told to you or you think you have witnessed. It is quite another thing to be IN those aging shoes,” wrote another. “When you get to 60, you might have the experience to comment on this vast and multifaceted subject.
A third reader responded with dark prophecy: “She (the writer) is losing her youth, but not yet her middle age,” she intoned. “She will learn.”
And she will learn, in the way we all do, though embodied experience.
I’m 58, not yet officially old, but old enough to be well-versed in the physical and mental realities of aging, which most of us experience as eroding capacity: the body loses strength, stamina and speed; the brain, sharpness and coherence. Lacking the resilience of youth, we become more vulnerable to all manner of illness, injury and decay.
This is not just a story we tell ourselves, a failure of our ability to control the narrative. I am not fabricating the stiffness in my joints, nor the inability of my brain to retrieve the proper word, nor the extra effort required to make an articulate argument. It’s my daily experience — “every function less exact, each nerve more loosely strung,” in the words of poet Matthew Arnold.
The process commences and proceeds differently for each person, but the truth of an aging body is sooner or later written in the bones, the muscles, the skin; the truth of an aging brain in a gradually diminished ability to sustain not just a positive narrative, but any narrative at all. A paralyzed person fails to walk because his spine is severed, not because he is telling himself a pessimistic story, or because paralysis is just a word.
Yet consolations emerge: the richness of remaining possibility, though contextualized and perhaps constrained; the ascendance of spirit as the body recedes. As in youth, attitude and perspective count for a great deal.
“Life has taught me much, sometimes through love and sometimes through adversity, and the things I thought so important at 30 — status, appearance, an aura of invincibility–no longer hold much value for me,” wrote a 65-year-old reader in response to the Tiny Buddha post. “I am so much calmer, so much more centered, so much more accepting and forgiving. I have changed in ways I never would have predicted when I was young.”
Aging tests our prowess in meeting life’s fundamental challenge: to release what is past, to embrace what is present, to open, again and again, to whatever’s next, including, ultimately, our own dying. And in the meantime, to live as fully as we are able.
“Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees,” says poet May Sarton in the starkly beautiful Journal of a Solitude, written in her late fifties. “Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”