Two of the reasons that I
- always tell my real age
- stopped coloring my gray hair
- refuse to consider Botox, cosmetic surgery, etc.
…is that to do otherwise is a lie and as such, they are ageist acts by trying to convince others that one is younger than is so.
But there is a third, more important reason: I want to experience this phase of life - getting old, aging, becoming the oldest generation, facing death – as completely and genuinely as I experienced childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Unless I am honest – with myself and everyone else – about all aspects of my age, I will not know what is real and what is not. If I tell you that I am 55 instead of 65, you will respond to me differently. 55 is still of working age; 65 is still considered traditional retirement age even if the law now says people cannot be forced to retire. Age 55 would put me in different social and cultural categories where, in reality, I no longer am.
If I returned to coloring my hair, it would undoubtedly shave a few years off my appearance, but not so many that it would matter much and it is much easier to be done with the chemicals, time and money.
And as to medical intervention, I’ve never seen any person who had “work done” who has either fooled us or aged well. Look at Michael Douglas these days. And Joan Rivers. And a host of others. Fright masks. But that is only the reverse vanity reason not to do it. For me, the real reason is that I am curious about what nature has in store for me as the years pass.
The multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry and the additional multi-billion-dollar cosmetic business – medical, pharmaceutical and “cosmeceutical” – prove that I’m mostly on my own in wanting to get to my grave in the way nature devises.
And here is the reason, rarely spoken, that I’m alone out here in this youth-centric wilderness getting old au naturel: everyone is afraid to die.
It doesn’t matter how religious you are or what your holy books say about what comes next - no one knows. Is it 72 virgins? Is there a real hell? Or heaven? Or do we face oblivion? It is the great unknown and we all wonder, when on rare occasions we allow ourselves to do so, if all this life is for nought and if maybe we do not survive after death as ourselves.
We fear not being. And that fear – the most primal of fears - is built into our DNA. It keeps us from wandering out into traffic and from jumping off tall buildings. It keeps us safe long enough to get our kids raised and pass the baton the next generation. The difficulty is that even after we have individually guaranteed the continuation of the species, the fear continues.
“They” say mankind is the only species that knows of its own future annihilation. I’m not convinced that’s true, but even if it is, that knowledge of our doom is what gives life both its importance and its poignancy.
But instead of creating a philosophy of living that includes the truth of our cosmic dilemma (or, if religion does so, living it as though it mattered), most people have made it taboo to speak of death in ordinary conversation even though it is the central problem of life. Have you ever tried? Even your friends will say, “oh, don’t be morbid” and change the subject.
We have cleaned up and excluded all signs of death from our lives. Most loved ones die in antiseptic hospitals. Many family members don’t visit because, they say, they can’t face the death of their loved one. I never believe that. What they can’t face is being reminded of their own future death, and they have not the courage to show up anyway to hold the hand of the person, in the last days and hours of life, they say they love.
And once the loved one is dead, the body is sent to a funeral home to be cleaned and dressed by strangers. With all the pretense it is hard to know, nowadays, that Aunt Mary died. Maybe she just didn’t feel like showing up for Thanksgiving this year.
It is as though, in banning death from life and particularly in creating perpetual youth through surgical and other means, people believe they will fool the grim reaper into thinking it is not their turn when he comes for them.
Elders who look their years remind younger people they too will die. It is the genesis of all ageism and age discrimination: younger people and people pretending to be younger than they are don’t want old ones around to remind them of their own mortality.
But, no matter how many lies you tell about your age, no matter how much Botox you pump into yourself or how many nips and tucks you have done, you will get old, you will also look old and you will die. Trying to fight it and denying it will not change it.
It is better, I think, to pay attention to the changes the later years bring – to see them, feel them, think about them and to talk about them and the mystery of life. Of course getting old is sad. It is leading up to saying goodbye for good and that always hurts. But I think – or, at least, I hope – that in doing it my way, facing age and all that it means as directly and openly as possible, I will be as ready to leave life behind, when the time comes, as my mother was. A few days before she died, she said to me:
“Don’t be sad, Ronni. I’ve lived a good, full life and I’m ready to go now.”