I hadn’t heard from Grace for several years and her email today surprised me. She and I dated briefly, but we hadn’t stayed in touch. Her message wasn’t long — and she didn’t seem to really want anything special — but one section really struck me.
“I’m turning 31 next week and I feel so old,” she wrote. “It was hard when I turned 30 last year and I didn’t think I’d feel this way again this year, but I do. I hate feeling this old, like everybody knows I’m not young and pretty anymore. I’m not sure what I expected, but life doesn’t turn out like I thought it would.”
This was the second time in the last month that I’d heard a woman express uneasiness about celebrating a birthday. That left me thinking again about how we see youth and age and wisdom and beauty in modern culture.
Our culture has a lot of things backwards when it comes to values, but this one seems especially dangerous. Cultures used to teach their people to give value and respect to age and wisdom, but as images have come to dominate western culture, we have reversed everything.
We glorify youthful appearance in ways never known in human history — and we’re eager to write off the wisdom of those who have finally experienced enough of life to have insight and understanding.
Our warped cultural programming leaves us scared of what we see in our faces when we look into mirrors. And it leaves us yearning for the younger years of our lives — when we were the most ignorant and foolhardy.
These warped cultural values are making a lot of individuals miserable today.
Did I feel differently about all this when I was younger? To some extent, I suppose I did, but I also know I always questioned the myth that we should strive to be “forever young.”
At my high school graduation, a woman from our class sang Bob Dylan’s 1974 song, “Forever Young.” I remember idly thinking during the ceremony that it sounded like a really bad idea, because I saw most of us as incredibly immature and pompous. Even though I thought I was going to be great in the future, there was a part of me inside that knew I wasn’t ready for that.
I felt brilliant and supremely talented back then — not very modest, of course — but I didn’t feel very wise or mature.
When I was very young, the people of my grandparents’ generation seemed incredibly old. When I saw my grandparents and my other older relatives only once a year or so, I didn’t see much value in them. But after we moved back to the little town where my father was born — a move which I detested in some ways — I got to know them well and saw things I hadn’t seen before.
My paternal grandfather was one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever known. I didn’t realize that until I was about 14 or 15 and I started spending a lot of time with him after school. I’d often walk the mile or so from our house to my grandparents’ apartment and spend a couple of hours talking with my grandfather.
He didn’t go to school past the sixth grade. His family was poor and he had to start working to help make ends meet. He lost part of one of his arms early in life on a job, but he made a living as a cab driver and a salesman and a dozen other things. He spent most of his life in sales — selling cars at his brother’s car lot in Birmingham — and even well into his 70s, he drove a cab part-time, just because he was bored at home and wanted to talk to interesting people.
This old man with the sixth grade education could talk about anything I happened to think of. We talked about philosophical ideas and books and politics and history. He hadn’t been able to afford to travel, but he had read more than anybody I’ve ever known. His vocabulary was huge.
Papa had some serious character flaws that I didn’t know about then — things which had made him difficult when he was younger — but by the time I knew him, he was wise and loving and kind. His blue eyes were full of life.
He was one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever known — and I learned a lot from him about how to live.
I’m no more eager to die than anybody else is, so the only part about getting old that I dread is the inevitable fact that it means I’ll be getting closer to death. Other than that, I’m far happier with myself today than I’ve been at any other time in the past.
I’m still not what I want to be, but I’m wiser and more insightful and more loving than I was 30 years ago. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I hade great technical skills, but I had remarkably little maturity and wisdom, at least by my current standards.
If you judge your aging by whether you are getting some lines on your face or other physical markers of age, you’re setting yourself up for unhappiness. If you’re into middle age or older, you’re never going to have the perfect looks you might have had in your 20s or 30s, at least by the standards of a world in which there is always going to be someone younger and better-looking than you are.
But if you’re mature and wise, you can choose to learn from your years and you can accept that there is a great tradeoff about getting older. You can stop fighting a battle against time which you can’t win — and you can start valuing yourself for the maturity and wisdom that you should be gaining.
Stop judging yourself by this shallow culture’s image standards. Start holding yourself to a higher and better standard, one which insists that you have more value as you become wiser and more mature.
If you’re unhappy to see yourself aging, ask yourself whether it’s because you no longer meet the world’s standards of youth and beauty — or if it’s something else. Ask yourself if you’re simply unhappy with what you’ve done with your life so far.
That’s the only part of experience that has bedeviled me. I keep learning more and more about myself — and the problems with the values that I’ve previously held and lived — so I keep having to change my life to be a better and happier person.
I’m unhappy with how I’ve spent a good part of my life. I can look back and see time that I’ve wasted — on useless goals and unhealthy people. But I can’t do anything to change the past.
All I can do is start from where I am — each time I have such a realization — and start over with my eyes forward, not cast toward the past. What I’ve learned is that the past is dead and needs to stay dead. The future is where I’m going, so I’m willing to sever any tie and make any change I need to make.
I wish I’d already accomplished more with my life. I wish I’d learned more wisdom earlier in life. I wish I’d been smart enough and wise enough to build the family I wanted many years ago. I wish I’d understood why I really needed to grow in some of my values.
But I can’t change any of that. All I can do is move forward from today — confident that this is the best I’ve ever been and that my life is getting much better as I get wiser and more mature.
Youth is overrated. Youthful looks are overrated, too. If we can get past our dysfunctional cultural training, maybe we can accept that the best days of our lives are always the ones that lie ahead — if we choose to make that true.
Note: The photos above are of Lillian B. Rubin, who was a sociology professor and writer in New York City. The photo on the right was when she was in her 80s, just a few years before her death in 2014. She wrote in her later years about cultural attitudes and biases related to aging. The photo below is with my grandparents on my first birthday.