Lent of Letting Go: Getting Older

How can you tell you’re getting older? 

When the flight attendant asks you, “And what are YOU having, young lady?”  (Don’t they know how utterly patronizing that is?)

When your younger colleague is amazed that you were able to do the Powerpoint presentation yourself without his/her help.

When you answer the age question on surveys, your age bracket is the last on the list.

That’s what happened to me today—I did a telephone survey to save $3 on my next purchase at PetSmart (which in itself is probably a sign of aging), and the first question was about age.  They started at “18 and younger” and then “19-24” and then “25-34”—at which point I realized the brief telephone survey was going to be a lot longer for me.  Finally the recording got to “56 and older” and while I consoled myself that at least I just squeaked into that age bracket, I was a little disappointed that that WAS the last bracket.  So, demographically, the survey people figured that the people from 18 to 24 are a lot different than the people from 24 to 35 but that everyone over 55 could probably either all be lumped together attitudinally, or simply weren’t important enough as a group to be further broken down.

I’d like to say that only superficial people concern themselves with aging, but in fact, I don’t know anyone personally who is rushing into it enthusiastically.  The best you can do is accept it and work with it.   Andrew Weil, the MD/alternative healer, tells you that you can prevent cancer by eating right, but if you’re 65 you better walk instead of running to keep your knees from crumbling.  Deepak Chopra tries to talk you into defeating entropy by changing cellular behavior at a quantum level (and thereby presenting the intellectual equivalent of a shill game).

There are lots of different fears about aging:

  • Chronic disease
  • Loss of independence
  • Loss of muscle mass and strength
  • Evaporation of our memory bank (watching Jeopardy having all the answers on the tip of your tongue—how frustrating!)
  • Loss of our looks, our hair, our waistline, our sex appeal

While the latter is a universal concern for both sexes, it definitely has a stronger poignancy for women.  Biologically, our job is over when we can no longer reproduce, and all the social markers that flag this reality hit us, no matter how sophisticated we are, how brilliantly we contribute to society, or how attractive and well dressed we are. 

Valerie Monroe, Beauty Director for O Magazine, talks about this “Mrs. Cellophane” syndrome in her article “What It Feels Like to Stop Getting Noticed,” in the March issue:

A few months ago, I spent an afternoon helping out an art dealer friend at a print fair.  At a table in front of his display, I sat on one side of him while his assistant sat on the other; we greeted prospective buyers as they walked by.  ‘Hi, there!’ I would say with warmth and (what I thought was) a touch of modest charm when I saw one coming.  Time and again, from the men, I got a limp, dismissive ‘hi’ in response, occasionally a nod.  It wasn’t the Whistlers or the Chagalls that were diverting the art lovers’ attention; it was my friend’s lovely assistant.  She wasn’t flashy or glamorous; but she had a smooth, milky, 20-something complexion and the sweet, expectant, wide-eyed look of youth.  Thirty years ago, I might have been her….. That afternoon, I felt as if I had been stripped of all color and was the only gray-and-white figure in a richly tinted painting.  I was Marion Kerby, one of the ghosts in Topper, all dressed up and nowhere to…be seen.  

To me the letting go of aging is about not trying so hard to—as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song says–hold a moonbeam in your hand, or in this case, the sunbeam of youth.  I’ve read articles about people who are consuming only 1100 calories a day so that they can live to be over 100.  Calorie restriction is a valid scientific theory based on studies with calorie-restricted mice, who live far longer and with fewer degenerative diseases than mice who are fed normally.

I’ve always wondered, what if someone were dedicated to eating half their normal calorie intake for the sole purpose of living longer, and after they’ve done that for a decade or two they stepped out in front of a bus and bam!  They’re gone at 58 or 68—far short of their goal.  Would their dying thoughts be, “Wow, all those calories that went uneaten for nothing!”  Would their final regret be, not, “I should have spent more time with my family,” but “I should have spent more time at Ruth’s Chris Steak House”? 

Living simply and mindfully and letting go of aging is to focus on our lives today—not as they were in 1964 nor how they might be in 2052.   Letting go of our younger selves with skin as tight as a newly stretched canvas gives us more time to exercise and appreciate our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, as Sister Rose Irma used to call our soul’s physical vessel.   Letting go of our younger selves with collagen intact gives us more time to appreciate others.  Letting go of our younger selves who could run a marathon in six hours means we have time to explore our passions with redoubled effort.  Letting go of our younger selves gives us our today selves, and those are the only selves we have, like it or not.

Maturity, our parish priest once said in a sermon, is the evolution from being self-conscious to being others-conscious.   So perhaps the letting go is about, at last, maturing.   What would be worse than being old, but not mature?  That would be like having the box that the antique diamond ring came in, but the ring itself is missing.  So we can dignify our aging selves by shifting our focus outside ourselves and by concentrating on what we can do for those around us, for those we love and for those we haven’t had the opportunity to love yet, for the wider world, for our sick planet, for the good of all.