Friday, July 17, 2015

Old is good

My hair stylist recently made a comment about her children's definition of "old." She seemed to dislike their idea that she was just a couple of years away from being old, but I disliked her dislike. I said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with being old." She didn't understand this statement, so I explained it to her.

Americans have conflated oldness with infirmity and disease. People often say, "I don't feel old," when what they mean is that they don't feel out of breath, in arthritic pain, or any other symptoms of sickness. "I don't feel old" doesn't mean the person hasn't yet registered Republican or started saving for retirement. It doesn't mean they suddenly remember coming of age a few decades later than they did. "I don't feel old" doesn't mean someone is making the same harebrained decisions they made when they were 20. "I don't feel old" tends to be a statement about stamina, attitude and general health. 

Having equated old age with being sick or incapacitated, Americans are terrified of growing old. We insist we're not old no matter how old we get. "I'm not old" we say as we celebrate our 55th, 65th or even 75th birthdays. We can only say this because we've detached old age from chronological age. We say this because we've given old age a new definition: sourness of mood, pain in body and limited physical mobility.

But there are many people who reach the end of their lives without these characteristics. And there are plenty of people who suffer from crotchetiness or a life-threatening disease well before their 40s. Americans like to fantasize that older people are closer to death and younger people are farther from it, but that's completely false. Death claims plenty of children, teenagers and young adults all the time, whether through disease, accident or police. At no time is anyone any farther or closer to dying than anyone else.

But we Americans hate death and we handle it terribly. We can't think about it without great anxiety, so we tell each other that as long as we don't get old, we don't have to die. And now we've conveniently redefined "old" so that it doesn't apply to anyone who doesn't feel sick. We've even gone so far as to start believing that no one is old who maintains a cheerful outlook on life. No one's old and no one ever has to be!

Even though I was born and raised in the U.S, I failed to learn this fear of old age. For as long as I can remember, I've seen getting older as an advantage. You know the pride a six-year-old feels upon turning seven? I still feel that with every birthday. On July 24th I'll turn 49 and I'm glad.* I see 49 as one year more experienced and knowledgeable than 48. I've witnessed a bit more, learned a bit more, and felt a bit more. I'm one year farther from past painful lessons and I have one year more perspective on those events. I have one year more authority with which to say, "Yes, I know how that feels," and "I remember that," and "Actually, in my experience, it's like this." Growing old is one of the ways I feel increasingly solid and respectable. Aging has brought me confidence, peace of mind and the end of feeling afraid of the whole world. Aging has been great for me and I anticipate feeling better and better as I get even older.

Someone must have modeled this lack of fear of aging. It might have been my dad, who has never hesitated to tell anyone his age, has never colored his hair and has never fussed about his appearance. He just lives his life, and these days his life is pretty darn good. He has no chronic pain or health issues that slow him down. He's enjoying himself, completely unhampered by concern about whether he's behaving like all the other 78-year-olds. 

In other countries, people understand that how wrinkled or incapacitated or diseased someone is reflects the circumstances of their life, not how many years they've existed. When I taught ESL 22 years ago, I asked my classroom full of women from Japan, Germany, China, Mexico, Russia and Vietnam how they tell how old someone is. They listed things like how the person dresses and speaks. When I asked about wrinkles and gray hair, they said that only showed how hard someone's life is. It's as if Americans have taken the worst qualities of life and stuffed them into our definition of "old." This view of aging makes no sense and I've never bought it. 

After I explained my views to my hair stylist, she nodded and said she understood what I was saying, but I had my doubts about whether she could take it to heart. I can see that it's hard for middle aged American women to accept their own aging, even though I don't understand their discomfort. 

So happy birthday to me next Friday the 24th! We'll see if I still feel this way next year when I turn 50. OH, yeah...50!

*It occurs to me that my sister might not like me telling my age every year because anyone who knows how far apart we are in age can calculate how old she is. Sorry, Judy.

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