I meet a new colleague at work. She’s friendly and engaging and appreciates every helpful gesture I make as she finds her way around the office suite. Late in the afternoon, she perches in my doorway. “I just have to tell you,” she says with a smile, “you have such a lovely face. Great skin.”
I warm to a compliment as much as the next person. We chat a moment about skin care products before she heads back to her desk. “Anyway, ” she adds in parting, “you’re certainly aging well.”
And there it is, that inner startle. The one I experience each time I’m reminded that, well or otherwise, I am in fact aging. I have at least fifteen years on my new colleague, and that’s my guess because she’s married to a dermatologist, for crying out loud, so is probably farther along life’s path than she appears to be.
Notice I describe myself as older. Not old. Growing old is so freighted with dismal cultural assumptions that it takes courage simply to use the word older. Even so I feel the need to assure you that I work full time, I write, I travel, I volunteer, I do yoga and lift weights and wrangle horses for fun and walk at least four miles a day. I do not wear velour track suits nor sweatshirts embroidered with kittens. I’m thinking about getting a tattoo.
Do I sound defensive? Trust me, that’s nothing compared to the reactions of my younger friends and coworkers at the rare times I refer to my age. “I can’t believe that,” they rush to assure me. “You’re amazing. Nobody would ever know.” As though I’m concealing some shameful truth or a humiliating personal condition.
I take such remarks in the kindly spirit in which they’re made and no longer make self-deprecating jokes in response. I’ve been at this aging thing long enough now to learn a few things, one of which is that it doesn’t do to make the young uncomfortable unless there’s good reason. I wish I’d known these things sooner, which is why I’m sharing a few of them with you. Because aging, unless you’re very unlucky, is inevitable. The better you do it, the better for all of us, so I’m acting out of self-interest here.
1. Ageism is a construct. Resist.
Ageism is a mean, sad reality, and it’s even meaner and sadder if you’re a woman. Things are getting a teensy bit better, with celebrities like Helen Mirren and leaders like Nancy Pelosi forging gloriously into the headwinds. There’s the hit status of Grace and Frankie — which reveals us that somebody has finally figured out which demographic still watches TV. And it must be noted that these examples are all Caucasian, which speaks to a a different but related issue. My immediate point here is that if you’re a woman over 50, flipping through most magazines or walking through shopping malls is a strangely disembodying experience, like wearing a cloak of invisibility embroidered with kittens.
Ageism can be downright brutal in the workplace, where, like aging itself, it happens before you expect it. The day you find yourself sitting in front of a hiring manager who may have gone to high school with your kid. The moment someone upon whose opinion your chance at the job or the promotion rests asks you when you got your degree, and your stomach does a little inward flip. Trust your gut. It’s happening.
Unlike aging, ageism is something you need not and should not accept. There are remarkably few jobs that actually require youth. If you come up against bias in an interview or in the workplace, call ’em on it. You’ve got the wisdom and experience to put the whippersnappers in their place. Do it gracefully, but do it. Nobody wants to come across as racist. They should be just as horrified to appear ageist.
2. Age is a real thing. Accept.
The hippest and most vibrant older people I know never apologize for their age. Nor do they deny it. There is a critical difference between maintaining a youthful spirit — which really means remaining true to one’s nature, even as it unfolds across time — and trying to be young when you’re not.
There are certain inner powers that you can access only when you’ve found the courage to embrace the changes that come with the years. If you’re not too busy freaking out because your knees are creaking or you don’t remember why you came into the room, you can savor your deepening understanding of yourself and your corresponding compassion for others. Especially the young, who are so wrapped up in what others think of them. They have yet to learn that other people are way too wrapped up in thinking about themselves.
It’s not their fault, but the young cannot possibly get this the way you do: mortality is for real. Once you can no longer deny it, you can welcome what it offers; the relief of no longer taking yourself seriously; the rock-solid grasp that this moment, right here and right now, is a gift, life’s honest-to-God present. The dawning realization that this earthly you is a phenomenon with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But far from being an isolated event, your existence is part of something so vast it stretches far beyond your perception. You may be only one thread in a tapestry whose pattern is too big to grasp, but what you can see is awe-inspiring, and you are part and parcel of it.
3. If your world’s not getting bigger, it’s getting smaller. Grow.
Like bristlecone pine trees, snakes, and kangaroos, human beings are designed to grow until we die. In the case of humans that doesn’t mean physical growth, of course. Physically and even to some extent mentally, our diminishment is at a certain point inevitable. But we don’t have to wither before we reach the finish line. If we remain alive to our unfolding and accumulating experience, something within us continues to put forth new and sometimes unexpected shoots.
Call it perspective, call it wisdom, or call it simply a long and well-curated memory. The point is to keep adding new things to your experience, to continue to push past your comfort zone. No, you don’t have to spend all afternoon playing Fortnite with your grandkids (they don’t really want you to) or accumulate Twitter followers like a squirrel gathering acorns in autumn, but you should at least be familiar with those things (Fortnite and Twitter, I mean,not acorns). Listen to new music. Eat weird food. Travel when you can, and do it with an open heart. Refrain from comparing everything to that with which you’re already familiar. Stay alive, all the way, until you’re not. Don’t croak before you actually die.
One sure defense against ossification is to learn new things. Did you know that about kangaroos growing all their lives? Curiosity is a great ally. Make use of it, especially now that you have the luxury of learning for its own sake rather than to pass the test or earn the degree. Learning promotes wonder, and wonder provokes delight, and delight is high-octane fuel for your life’s engine. It’ll keep you going even when the road gets rough.
There’s more, far more, to aging freely and vibrantly. But I’m just getting started. For now, I send you greetings from a little distance farther down the road. Stay tuned.