“Aging gracefully.” The more I hear the expression, the less it suits me.
I don’t reject the intention in appending “gracefully” to a natural passage that we’ve come to dread – as though a delicate adverb would somehow solve our perception problem that young is “good” and old is “bad.”
Yet “aging gracefully” is passive and presumptive, an issue for and among women, focused primarily on appearance while positioning the aging process as something we can (or should) prevent. Worse, it steers us away from fundamentals: We all age (if we’re fortunate), we are none of us graceful all the time, and life poses challenges at every stage.
Isn’t it up to each of us to face them – and face them down?
Perception is Reality? Not So Fast…
Who won’t admit that growing older is a cagey companion?
Glancing in the mirror or seeing ourselves on film, we notice we’re in between – no longer young, and not yet old. Our sense of mortality feels assaulted. Our identities are precariously placed in question. Our sources of power are shaken, particularly for those who have relied on beauty and used it smartly to their advantage.
Then comes that day when we’re informed by our bodies that we won’t be around forever – an incident, an illness, or an event forces our hand and alters our ideas of who we are and how we’re valued.
But perception is not reality, and realizations may give birth to a wake-up call, a call to action, a series of actions – a resurgence of our values and dreams and capacity to contribute – with a second wind or third, or for that matter, a twenty-third.
No thank you. I prefer aging defiantly, aging tenderly, aging authentically. I also prefer turning the tables on trickster terminology to do with “anti-aging.” Choose your adverbs to suit your taste, and let’s rally around verbs that serve us better: learning, launching, loving, living.
Why is it that when we hit 40 or 45 or 50 – when our necks become more pliable, our breasts lose their spring, and our memories reference twenty years back with more acuity than twenty minutes ago – we begin to replace our grand, gargantuan and glorious verb “to live” with a somber substitute that suggests a downward arc, a series of losses, and our own undoing?
We are “aging” from the time we are born; this is not different arriving at 50.
Ah, you will tell me, but it is.
When we’re young, we find ourselves on the path to more, better, faster. We’re polishing our shiniest milestones. We’re hungry for the discoveries of our promised prime. Dreams stretch ahead of us, and we’re aging toward a future we’re building, and always, upward.
Pain? It’s measured in the equivalent of skinned knees, inoculations, and that first bitterly broken heart, all of which is a far cry from signs of arthritis, a physician’s warning to watch the cholesterol, the regret as we sense in our limbs and look in the mirror, and begin to process losses that are subtle… or stinging.
We are afraid to speak of the sorrows, and even more afraid to imagine our futures.
The Future Lies in Every Day
Do what we can to ensure we’re healthy? Of course! Most of us can get behind that.
But narrow our options, not to mention our focus, when we’re perfectly positioned to be reaching out and giving back?
I repeat to myself the words of a friend who once said to me: we create the future every day. That doesn’t mean every day before 40, or every day a part of the body doesn’t ache, or every day we like our pallor, our waistlines, our energy level, our mood, our kids, our spouses, our status, or lack of it.
I prefer living gracefully and better still – living ravenously, compassionately, honestly. I prefer admitting openly that I struggle with the emergence of an older woman in the mirror, even as I simultaneously see my youth in reflection, along with dreams dashed and those yet to embrace. I confess unabashedly that I’m unable to imagine my dotage any more than I could imagine myself at 50 – when I was 20. I can only hope that in 30 years time I will possess three decades of new stories to recount, poised to do so – with wit and vibrancy.
Aging Reality and “Living” Resolve
Will I pretend that I wouldn’t choose my 30-year-old breasts over my 50-year-old breasts? Hardly. But I’m grateful I have my breasts, and celebrate every aspect of my physical and emotional self that is healthy.
Would I like the strength in my arms that I once took for granted, before a car accident a few years back? Definitely. But I’m grateful that I’m alive and otherwise well, and that I made it to this stage as feisty and flirty as ever.
Do I wish I were a younger, more carefree self, bringing that boundless energy to the man in my life? Naturally. Then again, I wonder – without what I’ve lived and who I have become, would I be the woman he loves?
As for our facile usage of “aging gracefully,” I deem it a pop culture catch-all, a marketing money-maker, a misnomer. It is an expression tinged with resigned acceptance behind which hide hundreds of commercial campaigns that contradict our value, and the resolve we can carry into each and every day.
So I will fight the words we use with the words I choose – hoping to change the conversation, hoping to focus on giving and growing, hoping to convey that language shapes our attitudes and behaviors. Words, like habits and mindsets, are changed with practice. Let’s trade up – from aging gracefully to living fully – without denying our challenges, yet more likely to transform them.
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