I recently had a birthday. Turning 41 isn’t normally seen as a big landmark year. They don’t sell black birthday cake candles that have “41” stamped on them, and since I avoided any over-the-hill party last year I think I’m safe from that. This birthday did make me think, though, about how our culture handles aging.
At 41, fewer people are asking me how old I am. The number of brave souls who ask for that information is still higher than those who ask my weight (maybe that will be a future topic if I get wise enough), but it is dropping precipitously.
Our American culture is very future-oriented. We spend a lot of focus on educating our children, our babies even, to prepare them for their tomorrows. We arrive at appointments on time if not early, because we plan for them and stop whatever we are doing when it’s time to leave for the appointment. We plan, we save, and we set goals. We allow our tomorrows to shape our todays.
Not all cultures are like this. Some cultures live in the present. Grocery shopping is done several times a week, and the refrigerators are small because having food for today is good enough. Fresh is valued over canned or frozen. There aren’t many clocks around because who needs them? What is happening now is more important than the event coming up an hour from now. That event will be dealt with in an hour when it comes.
Other cultures value the past more. The wisdom of their elders, ancestors even, is valued more than the yet-unfulfilled hope of what their children will one day become. Age is a valued and respected commodity.
So how does all this relate to turning 41? In a culture where the future is more important than the past or even present, our culture tells us there’s something wrong with growing old and having less future in front of us.
“Anti-aging” creams are a staple of the cosmetics industry. “Covers fine lines and wrinkles” is a stock phrase in advertising. Plastic surgery is a common way to fight gravity and its effects. Women are especially targeted, though men do have the option of dying their hair or attempting to cover their baldness.
But I ask, what is wrong with being old? What is wrong with LOOKING old?
I have a few, luckily not many, friends who haven’t made it to 41. Frankly, I’m glad to be alive. I’m thankful that I’m still able to walk and talk and think and smell a flower and cuddle a baby and watch my kids grow.
Speaking of kids, mine are getting older and they think that is wonderful. They love birthdays, and only part of that enthusiasm is because of the presents. I think it is wonderful too. Nobody wakes me up 3 times every night crying to be fed. They can dress themselves and even sort their own laundry. They make their own breakfast and lunch and even occasionally dinner. Everyone assumes that is a good thing, and it is.
So why isn’t it good for all of us to age? Why don’t we celebrate each year like the children do? I don’t mean we should rent a bouncy house and invite our friends over, but why aren’t we excited about what is to come in the next year?
Perhaps it’s because we’re scared to death of death. Yes, I just used the “d” word. Don’t get me wrong; I like life. I want to squeeze as much out of my time here as I can, and the more time I have, the more I can do. However, if I dread death so much that I also dread aging, I will allow it to negatively affect the time I do have left.
So I am glad to grow older. Not only is the alternative a lot less desirable, but with each year I am a better version of myself. I learn and cope and thrive and live. My hair will turn silver, then white, and I will let it. Each of those silver strands is evidence that I am growing older and better, wiser and more knowledgable. Why wouldn’t I want people to see that?
This past year I chose a few things I wanted to learn about. For the first time in a while, the subjects weren’t related to educating my children or the proper care of a baby. They were things that I had always wanted to learn but I had assumed that the learning phase was finished because I’m not a youngster any more. But I’ve realized that I have a lot of life left. And yes, I’m planning and goal-setting and all of those American things, but I’ve adjusted my thinking to look forward to the golden years and make the most of them.
Will you join me on the journey?