You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Jan - Purple 2

I’m sorry. Let me say this in the kindest possible way. Asking me what I will do to stay ‘young at heart’ as I get older is ageist.

Why would anyone assume that it is better to be young at heart than old at heart unless being old at heart implied a lot of unpleasant, undesirable things. Of course, that wasn’t the intention. Assuming that young is better is a deep cultural belief, one that is, unfortunately, absorbed by many people as they age, making them mourn their younger selves rather than enjoying the age they are.

I was already young at heart when I was young. Then I was middle-aged at heart and now, I think, I’m probably old at heart. And I’m here to tell you, all of you 40-somethings filled with dread about the future, it’s more interesting over here on the other side than you might think. Sure, there’s the reality of aging physical systems like hips and brains but also the extraordinarily interesting challenge of making an aging body work and work well. It’s a beautiful thing to walk five miles or swim lap after lap when you’re 65 because there’s all that rejoicing and gratitude that goes along with the exercise. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Lest anyone thinks this acceptance came easy, let me say that it has been a struggle. I, too, absorbed the cultural norms about aging, regarding wrinkles as flaws and physical infirmities as evidence of irrelevance. Until I had them. I know me and I know I’m not irrelevant. I am calmer, less competitive, more strategic, and, oddly, more competent in many areas than I was when I was at my supposed professional peak.

Rejection of the ageist cultural norm means that I can see old people as beautiful. I look at the faces of Robert Redford and Tommy Lee Jones and I think, my, they have aged so handsomely, the smoothness gone from their faces, every day in the sun or late night in a bar travelling in the crevices of their foreheads and cheeks, experience and richness to envy, every young man should be so lucky.

I used to think that I was a 19-year old trapped in a 60-something’s body, that my wrinkles and physical changes were old mothy clothes draped on my remembered lovely young self; that was my way of railing against the injustice of aging. Now I realize that aging isn’t an injustice as much as it is an undeserved reward. Not everyone gets here. We, all of us who looked battered and weathered, are more beautiful than we know.

So when you ask me what I will do to stay young at heart, I will tell you what I will do to be happy, where I want to travel, what work I want to do, and, last, how I want to be remembered. Those are questions everyone should contemplate, young, old and in-between.

Written in response to this prompt from The Daily Post: What are your thoughts on aging? How will you stay young at heart as you get older?


8 Comments on “You’re Asking the Wrong Question

  1. Tommy Lee Jones and I were in the same class in college. Every time I see a photo of him I realize that we have aged at the exact same rate and grown into ourselves too. I love being old.

  2. I love this. I’m 56. I treasure the wisdom that’s come with really living over my years. I love the idea of being mindful of the ordinary things that really do come with a lot of joy. I’m only in competition with myself at this stage of my life. We can all be role models to the women coming up after us. I am in a book club with a wonderful group of engaged, fun, entertaining women who are up to 20 years older than me. Getting to know them has given me a lot to look forward to. I love how you ended your piece by summing it all up in a very deep and thoughtful way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Growing up in Southern California, my goodness, you feel like you have to wear makeup, you have to dye your hair, there are so many “have to’s” – why can’t a woman just age gracefully, and naturally, and still be considered beautiful? I was one of those “lucky” individuals to gray early in life. And with a sensitive scalp, used to burn/dandruff after dying and then grays would pop out a week later. Then I thought, maybe I’m not graying “early,” but perhaps this is when a person is supposed to gray. We just don’t know, because so many of us are doing things to not look “old.” I got so tired of it and when we moved to Central, Oregon – I refused. I’ll now be 50 in a couple of months and my hair is half brown and gray underneath, My eyebrows have half gray in them. Sometimes I’ll put brow mascara on for special occasions. But because I “want to” not because I feel I “have to.”

  4. I wouldn’t want to stay young at heart; my heart was easily fooled back then. I wouldn’t want to be a twenty-year-old in a seventy-year-old body; I was dumb at twenty.
    I never did believe that what I saw in the mirror was me, so it’s easy to get used to seeing someone else in the mirror now. Other people don’t seem to mind. I think that’s what’s good about ageing – realising that other people don’t care what you look like.
    I never liked exercising (boring!) but I still want to move whenever I hear the music; the bits getting stiffer don’t seem to change that. I’d rather dance than run so… why not?
    I never did like having nothing to do, only there was so much needing doing I didn’t realise it back then. Now I choose how I keep busy. (The housework still doesn’t get done.)

  5. I love your final paragraph. Points that I need to think about, thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

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