I recently dreamed that I looked into a mirror, and the top part of my hair, from the crown to my ears, was snow white. The remainder of my hair was its usual dark brown, variegated with blondish, reddish curly strands. It seemed as if the dream and my hair were posing a question and a challenge to me. Nature herself was asking me if I was ready to accept an older “me” as my current self, place in life, identity. I don’t feel old, and I don’t really look old for my age (45). What does it really mean to grow older, and for other people to see me as old? I am eager to know myself and to embrace a wiser, more experienced version of myself. I am old enough to know that I don’t want to have any more children. I do accept that my physical body is mortal and is transforming. I still want to feel attractive enough for someone to consider me worthy of being in a relationship. Would having white hair make me less attractive, less youthful? Probably. While I aspire to some level of wisdom and personal maturity, do I want to be old? When will I be ready? Some say that our bodies age in chunks of five years – that we remain relatively equal to the image we hold of ourselves for a certain amount of time – say five years, and then suddenly, we appear five years older. Since we live with ourselves each and every day, it is hard to see our own bodies and faces aging and changing. Aging also means losing control, surrendering to the process of life, and also surrendering to the fact that we, ourselves are becoming redundant so that the following generations can bring their new energy, opinions, creativity to the forefront of culture and collective life. Becoming older also means acquiring wisdom and perspective.
It is also hard to embrace the Buddhist notion of detachment to ourselves, our internal image of our self as equated to our body and identity. Even if intellectually, I know that my body is not my Self, I am still fond of it, attached to living inside of it and as my home, I am also attached to the outcome of its evolution. No one wants to get old, become ill, decrepit, wrinkled, weakened, less forceful, or less attractive. The ultimate fear attached to aging is seeing the face of death – the end of self – in one’s own face. Perhaps that is why we are all so determined in this age of science, materialism, and information technology, to remove the traces of aging and death from our faces and bodies. Some are so determined not to age and to remain young in appearance long after the flower of youth would have normally long been extinguished, that they have induced the growth of an entire industry. Plastic surgery, vitamins, diets, health spas, gyms – many businesses depend on the collective fears of aging and death and on the desire spurred by the media for all of us to avoid redundancy by remaining young, attractive, healthy, and energetic.
It is logical in this dying era of materialism, for us to fear death, for while science, materialistic values, and modern medicine promise a longer physical life in our current bodies, they are not able to promise us any spiritual life in this sphere or the next. Andre Malraux (1901-1976) has been quoted to say in The Voices of Silence, (1963) that “the 21st century will be spiritual or will not be.” As we move into a new, more spiritual era, I am certain that as we progress, our acceptance of our own bodies and our personal physical death will be modulated by a new certainty of a life and identity beyond and outside of our personal bodies.
Still, it is very interesting to examine today to what lengths individuals will go to modify their own bodies. What does this mean as far as love of self is concerned? Is it loving to oneself to recreate oneself, like a work of art? And for whom are these these modifications designed to benefit? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions.
Still, I like to examine other questions as well. For instance, Pema Chodron says that each of us has been born into a specific body and into specific circumstances, and that each and every one of us is able to either stay asleep or reach enlightenment. We may be ugly, mentally or physically disabled, extremely beautiful, talented, slow-witted – but not a single individual has an advantage over any other. We all have an unique path to follow based on what we were given, with unique lessons to learn based on the characteristics of personality, body, and spirit that belong to each of us. When we choose to modify these characteristics, how does this influence our spiritual development? Is desiring to stay youthful a form of self-induced coma, a deep sleep of denial of self-growth and development?
Recently, a woman my son and I encountered while walking our dog engaged us in a canine-related conversation, as often occurs when dog walking. In the course of our discussion, she mentioned that dogs will attack and torment an older or ailing dog. Her interpretation of this behavior is that instinctively, dogs will try to eliminate a weak member of the pack who is using resources and not contributing to the well-being of the group. Since dogs like humans are predators, it is interesting to draw some similarities and differences between the two species. The major difference that I observe is that all though we live in groups like dogs, we differ in that we learn more extensively from experience and we develop culture from our conclusions once the experiences processed. Therefore, I think our elders in the past once benefited from status granted to them for their age and experience – since the group could benefit from that wisdom. Today, we do not honor wisdom, and therefore, we tend not to honor the elderly as much as we once did. In some cultures, age still does carry status. A friend and former teacher of printmaking, Shirley, was also a teacher of English and fascinated with Chinese culture. She had spent several stints teaching English in China, and she told me that the first question that is asked of a stranger is “How old are you?”. She explained that the response to this question allows the interrogator to understand the generation and status of the person being questioned. In China, we are thus granted a certain standing based solely on our age. In many traditional cultures in Asia and Africa, this has been the case, but as Western culture and traditions begin to permeate these cultures, the traditions of filial piety and respect of the elderly begin to diminish.
It seems to me that wisdom is a quality to be cherished, and wisdom cannot be acquired without life experience. Therefore, one can aspire to wisdom in youth, and not all older people are wise. However, I do admire those people, whatever chronological age they may bear, who attempt to apply the knowledge they have culled through the painful sludge of experience – which is what I call wisdom. It is my hope to gain a little bit of wisdom, with or without white hair. It took some doing for Snow White to wake up, and we all need to be pushed around by life quite a bit, (some of us more than others, perhaps) to grow. I don’t intend to resort to plastic surgery, corsets, tanning salons, commercial hair dyes (I try to make my own with mixed results) to make myself look younger. I do try to eat healthy, take walks, work out at the gym, and keep my mind young by writing this blog, among other creative pursuits. The goals of keeping my body alive and healthy is to allow me to be present for my son, and not to be a liability on anyone in my old age. Also, it is my hope that my mind and body will cooperate and remain functional, allowing me to paint and write into my later years.