The Personalist Project

How do you age gracefully?

The short answer is: I have no idea; I was hoping you'd tell me.

Our Year of Four Moves has finally got my hair turning white, and that's what brought the subject to mind. But it's not just the cosmetic aspect I want to talk about. Most articles on this topic are about just that: how to pass for 25,  how to do battle with wrinkles, extra chins and other horrors. And everybody understands the appeal of that. 

But there's more at stake in aging gracefully, or failing to, than you might think. When we of the older generation are at peace with the age we are now, we can spread that peace, comfort, and wisdom to the next generation. Someone who's comfortable in her own skin makes a better shoulder to cry on, a better mentor in times of confusion, than someone who's pretending to be an age she isn't anymore, or pining after the days when she herself was more shallow and more confused.

Someone who's uneasy, not at peace, jealous of the younger generation, is disquieting to be around. Someone still chasing after the phantom self she used to be, or imagines she still could be with the right zumba routine or cosmetic procedure, diffuses not comfort but its opposite.

Something else that should come with age, but doesn't automatically, is a larger perspective. Things that used to seem like disasters don't anymore, and, in the best case, this leads to a good kind of self-forgetfulness. You can more easily forego your favorite tastes or ways of arranging things, and this, too, brings peace and pleasure to the people in your care.

I remember hearing about a Spanish woman whose children were all convinced that "Mama likes the bony part of the fish best of all." She had gained the abillity to see it wasn't the end of the world if she didn't get to eat the part she really liked best, and she had progressed to being the kind of mother who got more pleasure out of giving her kids the best than by getting away with having it all to herself.

I say a "good kind of self-forgetfulness," because I don't mean anybody should be a doormat. Being taken for granted isn't consistent with anybody's human dignity, and taking others for granted leads to that entitilement mentality that gives parents and teachers so much grief these days.  Insisting on eating the bony parts of the fish out of a sickly self-contempt is no victory, but it can be a very good thing if it's inspired by the free choice to care about things that matters more, plus the free desire to give pleasure to another.

If the older generation is less able to exude peace and achieve indifference to external appearance, I think we have plenty of reason. We've been hounded for so long to value ourselves on our looks, youth, sex appeal--all qualities with an expiration date. Of course we're uneasy. We've also been subject to deeply confused messages about the importance of being somehow pampered and driven at the same time. This doesn't make for peace, either.

Our hair is getting white, and we thought by now we'd be competent at aging gracefully, but it's turning out to be trickier than expected.

Or so it seems to me. What do you think?

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