During a recent gathering of women, the conversation turned to age. The consensus was that as men and women get older, they become less relevant in society. It seems particularly true for women. American culture recognizes youth and beauty as something to be admired and coveted. And then it appears that society metaphorically turns them out to pasture at some point in a woman’s late thirties or early forties. These women become less relevant, less dateable, less fashionable, and ultimately less seen in many ways. The wisdom of aging takes a back seat to youth and chic lifestyles. The position of the family matriarch doesn’t garner the respect and honor that the female head of the family would seemingly deserve. There is shame around aging, and many feel they add no value.
Our thoughtful little group agreed that different cultures have different attitudes and practices around aging. It is a custom to celebrate and revere their elders. The term ‘old man’ is honorable in the Greek tradition. Native American elders are respected for the knowledge that they pass down. Chinese families view care and respect for their elders as a virtue. In India, there is a social stigma regarding disrespecting elders.
However, in Western culture, our lives are dynamic, fast-moving, and filled with adventure and excitement when we are younger. There is minimal ‘downtime.’ We don’t spend much time getting to know ourselves. We are busy doing and less focused on being. We are exploring all that the world has to offer, and we give negligible attention to pursuing who we are from the inside out.
Psychologist Erik Erickson argued that the Western fear of aging keeps us from living full lives. “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life,” he wrote.
As I have grown older, I have come to find that most things come to us at the right time. The day after my gal pals and I had our chat about aging, this excerpt from John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara came to my attention:
Stillness is vital to the world of the soul. If as you age you become more still, you will discover that stillness can be a great companion. The fragments of your life will have time to unify, and the places where your soul-shelter is wounded or broken will have time to knit and heal. You will be able to return to yourself. In this stillness, you will engage your soul. Many people miss out on themselves completely as they journey through life. They know others, they know places, they know skills, they know their work, but tragically, they do not know themselves at all. Aging can be a lovely time of ripening when you actually meet yourself, indeed maybe for the first time. There are beautiful lines from T. S. Eliot that say:
‘And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
I invite you to consider the astute words of both Mr. O’Donohoe and Mr. Eliot as you are considering the beauty of aging.