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 matter 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?

Comments (5)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Jun 28, 2016 6:58pm

This is a lovely reflection! I'm actually quite pleased whenever I find a new white hair--I quite like them. I think because I have been blessed to know so many who have aged gracefully in the way you describe--who have become comfortable in their own skin, who have learned not to sweat the small stuff, and who no longer seem to feel the need to jostle for precedence that is so common and so exhausting. 

Devra Torres

#2, Jun 29, 2016 9:10am

Yes, some days I'm pleased with my white hairs. Others, I'm still in a state of disbelief. But I am also blessed with a lot of people who give an excellent example of how I'd like to be.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jun 30, 2016 10:43am

Devra, Karl Rahner has some thoughts on "growing old gracefully". Well, perhaps not in the lyrical way I think your question poses it! But he does say that "old age is a grace", and a grace not given to all. He reminds us that old age today no longer has the prestige it held in those societies where elders were held in esteem. But nevertheless, he stresses that aging is a precious formative process which must not be seen fundamentally as a costume hiding a vibrant youth! Rather, it is a maturing dynamic moving the person towards a definitive decision regarding his/her eternal destiny.

My age denying bubble was burst on a number of occasions. Once I was given a "senior discount" without asking for it. Ouch! The second time was when a young person offered me their seat at a crowded presentation. Double ouch!

I've gotten some help from James Hillman's "The Force of Character" regarding the "grace" Rahner speaks of. Hillman mentions the fact the night rising from sleep becomes more frequent as one ages. Rather than seeing this as "waking up in the night" Hillman says we might see it as waking up "to the night".

Rhett Segall

#4, Jun 30, 2016 11:00am

There is much treasure in the night time silence and sky and aging gives us the biological opportunity to avail ourselves of it. Secondly, regarding short term memory loss (not that you and Kate have experienced this!) he opines that this give us mental space for our long term memories which in turn enables us to revisit and perhaps reshape our attitudes towards past events and thus also reshape our character. I do think this is a Providential dimension of aging and not afforded to the young.One caveat about Hillman's book. His chapter on sex and aging I think is very misguided. He encourages the imagination in this area in order to lend verve to our souls. Ah well...

The author most helpful to me in my experience of ageing is Pope John XXIII. I can do nothing better than to conclude with a quote from his Journal (p.264) He was 65.

I must not disguise from myself the truth: I am definitely approaching old age.  My mind resents this and almost rebels, for I still feel so young, eager, agile and alert.  But one look in my mirror disillusions me. I am drawing near to the gates of eternity.

Rhett Segall

#5, Jun 30, 2016 11:05am

This thought caused Hezekiah to turn to the wall and weep. I do not weep.

No, I do not weep, and I do not even desire to live my life over again, so as to do better. I entrust to the Lord's mercy whatever I have done, badly or less than well, and I look to the future, brief or long as it may be here below, because I want to make it holy  and a source of holiness to others.



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