Why You Should Celebrate the Thing We’re Taught to Dread

celebrate

This blog post is inspired by and dedicated to my mother.

It takes a long time to become young.” – Pablo Picasso

At some point in my late 20s I started to dread my birthday.

I dreaded signs of crow’s feet, cellulite, and failure in reaching my goals.

In fact, I had developed a wide range of fear around aging common to many of us who grew up in Western culture.

We are taught to cherish birthdays as children, but at some point that excitement should wane until birthdays become a day of dread. And we should especially rue birthdays ending in zero because there be dragons in a new decade.

For my 30th birthday I threw myself a big party wearing a new dress, but the day wasn’t a celebration. It was a stress reminder of where my life wasn’t.

I was living by the “You-Had-Better-Be” stories I had been taught. Such as:

  • You-Had-Better-Be established in a “stable” career by 30
  • You-Had-Better-Be married with kids by (or well before) 40
  • You-Had-Better-Be celebrating your top career achievements by 50
  • You-Had-Better-Be reviewing a well-oiled retirement plan by 60, and
  • You-Had-Better-Be doing crossword puzzles and taking naps by 70

Women seem to have an extra layer of age stress due to our “biological clocks.”

There’s pressure to get married by a certain age or you’ll turn into the proverbial cat lady. Once married, there’s pressure to start having children because, you know, tick-tock-tick-tock. Once you have children, there’s pressure to return to work because if you’re gone too long then no one dares hire you.

There’s also pressure to achieve our creative passions at a young age before our brains start to atrophy. After all, aging is creativity kryptonite, right? All great artists were in their early 20s when they created their first masterpiece, right?

Wrong.

Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research studied the ages of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and inventors and found that many had their biggest scientific breakthroughs between the ages of 36 and 41(which are still young ages).

So where does this unhealthy relationship to our age come from?

I’ve identified culture and statistics as the top culprits.

First, we live in a youth obsessed culture. Movies and TV shows feature unrealistically young protagonists displaying implausibly high skill-levels and accomplishments.

Magazines and billboards expose us to perfectly airbrushed teenage youth making us resent any sagging or wrinkling occurring on our own bodies.

We see the same celebrities who were idolized in their youth begin to reconstruct their faces as they advance in years in attempts to look perpetually 25.

But it’s not only celebrities. In 2013 alone, Americans spent a staggering $11 billion on face-lifts, Botox, and breast augmentations.

Second, we live by statistics.

Numbers are where the You-Had-Better-Be stories originate. Numbers scare us into believing that we had better accomplish goal X by age Y, or we can just forget it.

But nearly all people who have achieved huge success were known to have “beat the odds” or “defied convention.” In other words, they didn’t live by their statistical chance of success. They just went for it.

So what if we ignored the cultural and statistical pressures that make us feel too old to live our dreams and instead honored our strands of gray hair?

There are places in the world where aging is still celebrated – where forehead wrinkles are embraced as signs of wisdom, not zapped with a needle.

In Native American culture, as in most tribal cultures, elders are respected for their wisdom and knowledge. Death is an accepted fact of natural life – not approached with fear. And the elders are responsible for passing down their wisdom and learning to the youth.

In China, as in other parts of Asia, respect for one’s elders has been held as the highest virtue for centuries, deriving from the Confucian tradition of filial piety, a fundamental value to respect one’s ancestry.

The Western cultural stigma around aging and death doesn’t exist in Greece. Old age is honored and celebrated, and respect for elders is central to the family.

In Korea it’s customary to have a celebration to mark an individual’s 60th and 70th birthdays. The hwan-gap, or 60th birthday, is a joyous time when children celebrate their parents’ passage into older age.[i]

It’s time that we learn from these and other traditions and adopt a new relationship to aging – a relationship where birthdays aren’t approached with dread, but are celebrated as another year of earned experience, wisdom, and growth.

Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” – Mark Twain

My number one role model, my mother, just turned 70 and is about to retire from a long and distinguished career.

She’s a dynamo in near perfect health. Now that she’s 70, does this mean she should start living the retired lifestyle of playing Bingo and watching daytime television? Hell, no. My mother can learn to tango, start a new business, or travel to all the destinations on her bucket list.

Embracing and celebrating your age lifts the fear and opens you up to pursuing your passions no matter which decade you’re in.

Because the age you are this very moment is your perfect age.

My challenge for you in 2015 is to celebrate your next birthday as you did when you were a child. Celebrate both your proudest accomplishments and your laugh lines. Throw a huge party, hike Mount Kilimanjaro, or spend the day on your back patio. Celebrate in whichever way brings you the greatest joy.

Your birthday is a celebration of your life. It’s a celebration of all you’ve accomplished, who you are, and where you still want to go.

Jettison any You-Had-Better-Be stories you may be telling yourself.

Know that you get better with age.

And believe that you’re never too old to do anything.

I plan to celebrate my 39th birthday in May of next year with the wonderment an 8 year-old and the wisdom of someone ready to enter a new decade.

I challenge you to do the same.

What are your thoughts on aging? Post a comment below.

****

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/25/what-other-cultures-can-teach_n_4834228.html

Photo by Ant Jackson

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28 thoughts on “Why You Should Celebrate the Thing We’re Taught to Dread”

  1. I am proud to be 75 MY NEXT BIRTHDAY and I can tell you I don’t feel a day over 50. I love to celebrate MY BIRTHDAY, even more so, because my Daughter Brenda, and I celebrate together, since she was born only 3 days from MY BIRTHDAY.
    We have a good time on our BIRTHDAYS.

    Thank you for letting me express my thoughts.

    Thelma Cooper

  2. Your post today caught me by very pleasant surprise since I am the 70 year old mother of the very talented Allyson. She is correct that I was trying not to tell anyone how old I would be on my last birthday. However, the family thought otherwise and put it in our local newspaper! Now, the world knew! After many wonderful comments from several who saw the announcement, I realized ( with encouragement from Allyson) this was a milestone to be celebrated – not hidden. Therefore, I’m thinking about what new endeavors I will undertake in my next 100 years. Thank you for changing my outlook on birthdays, dear daughter Allyson.

  3. What a great post, Allyson. 50+ is such an exciting time of life. I was able to start University at the age of 50. I loved it. I do agree that old people are frowned upon. I entered a sport store recently to renew my joggers that were bursting at the seams. I found the young men avoided helping me and pretended to be busy doing something else. A young female who arrived just after me, was served first. These later years are so full of wonder and inspiration. Now we can do what we want to do. It’s the beginning of a new part of living to the full. I definitely agree that it’s time we learnt from other cultures how to not only treat the elderly, but to adopt a different perspective on aging. You are lucky to have such a wonderful mother. Cherish her. Thanks Allyson

    1. Dear Sharon (and mother), thank you for the comment. I’m so happy to hear you’ve had a change of heart regarding your new milestone of wisdom and life experience! And thank you for being such an amazing role model for me. I look forward to watching all the wonderful things you do in the next chapter of your life! Much love, xoxo, Allyson

      1. Thank you for the comment, Erral (or Jenna?). I’m sorry to hear that the guys at the sports store were rude, but yeah for you for having such an inspiring outlook. I will definitely take your advice and cherish my mother. She’s worth cherishing. Thanks again! xoxo Allyson

  4. Hi Allyson,
    what an inspiring post!

    And your mom has it absolutely right.

    “Because the age you are this very moment is your perfect age”

    I try to live by this notion.
    I truly believe that we can act only now. Because the past and future are out of our control.
    And when you live fully every moment you achieve your greatest potential.

    I love the quote by Jonathan Harrison:

    “You tend to identify between fulfillment and being someone or achieving something. However, since you cannot control the future, it creates anxiety since your reward is not certain. The other option is the way of the Zen master, whose sole goal is to fulfill himself fully in every moment”

    more about it here: http://www.vibrantdad.com/shortcuts-strangle-happiness-instead/

    “Jettison any You-Had-Better-Be stories you may be telling yourself”

    I love this! We’re too busy to do what everyone expects of us, as if we’re like everybody else. But each and every one of us is unique and has his own dreams to pursue.

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. Hey Benny, great comment! And I love the Harrison quote. I love what you say too: “Each and every one of us is unique and has his own dreams to pursue.” That’s so true. And our paths of achieving our dreams are vastly different. In the past I’ve been caught up with the fear that the fields I want to work in are too saturated, but now I realize that there is truly enough abundance for everyone to pursue their own dreams. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Allyson,

    I loved your mom’s advice that the age you are now is the perfect age.

    So many beliefs are given to us as we grow, really meant to help us. Yet, we find them imprisoning us rather helping us. So as adults, it is up to us to change these beliefs and so wonderful to have your mom be one to help and also being a role model.
    I’ll check you out on twitter too. I have a website based on changing our beliefs. http://changeyourbeliefsnow.com/ Check it out if you care to. Just a suggestion.

    I hope to be a role model for my daughter, I’m 62 and still love working.

    Susan

    1. Hi Susan, Thanks for the comment and sharing your fabulous website! You couldn’t be more right. I learned to change my beliefs on aging, which has given me an enormous amount of freedom. Great insight. Xoxo, Allyson

  7. Great post, Alyson. I used to be weighed down by better-be, but I’ve learned to let go of those. You’re right when you say that the age you are now is the perfect age. It’s so true.

  8. I really enjoyed this post, Allyson. I have never been afraid of aging and have always loved birthdays. They are so special and I am so excited for my 30th next year. I have always felt like a bit of an odd duck because many of my friends (at least the last few years) wants to make less and less of a big deal about their birthdays, almost always because of some sort of shame or embarrassment about their age and what it will mean for them. Or maybe it’s because they don’t think they are measuring up to what you are “supposed” to have accomplished by that certain age. I think life is getting better and better and intend to continuing celebrating my birthdays like the big deal that they are :)

    1. Jenni – Truly fabulous outlook! You are a role model for people in your own age group…and beyond. I squandered away a lot of birthdays (which felt more like non-celebrations), because of my age fear. I celebrate 40 in two years, and I’m already planning something big and special. :-) Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  9. I just turned thirty about 30 minutes ago and am looking forward to what is about to come. I couldn’t agree more with the stigmas surrounding turning thirty. Everyone I have encountered that realized that I was turning thirty would say the normal comments. Statements like “It’s all down hill from here” or “You’re getting old”. When I tell the!m that I’m excited for it, those same people who say that always have eitherba look of amazement or a look that I just lied to their mother or something along those lines. I don’t care what celebrities do and would be happy to never see a 20 something playing a high schooler ever again. Stay positive and always smile! After that is accomplished, everything seems to fall in place. Maybe not at that moment, but the universe always starts to figure you out. Good post and happy aging : ).

    1. Happy birthday, Danny! I’m honored that you chimed into this blog post on your special day!! Wise, wise words: Stay positive and always smile! I hope you celebrated in a way that’s meaningful to you.

  10. Thanks Alyson . I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in a culture where getting older is respected and people are treated with honor for getting older. As a matter of fact young people are more ridiculed for wearing make up as they are accused of hiding their natural beauty.
    I love the fact that I am getting older and one of the main reason is because the older I get the more I look like my darling grandmother.
    Even though I have always lived in the western world I was fortunate enough not to worry about superficial things. I saw my grand mother worked the field until she died at 90 years old. She didn’t get the wrinkles and sagging skin as much but I could remember her making fun of how her breast had fallen to just above her knees after having eight children. She was good at making fun of herself.
    I want to be just like her. Love myself, and everyone of the grey hairs that might show up and wear them with honor and pride.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Rose. It sounds like your grandmother was an amazing woman. You were indeed lucky to grow up in a culture with such a healthy relationship to aging. I encourage you to share your wisdom with those around you. We have much to learn from you! Thanks again for the inspiring words. XOXO

  11. Wow. This post shook me up.
    This post acts as a cold, hard reminder of the common fallacies in our society when it comes to aging. Completely agree that a person gets better with age. They might loose a bit of energy, but in return get WISDOM.
    While media all around us promotes youth, you have the choice to completely ignore social conditioning and ACCEPT yourself completely.
    For people who want more info on self-acceptance, check out: http://gameligit.com/path-unconditional-self-acceptance/

  12. Allyson,
    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Ageing is interesting as in theory as we get older we should get more mature and less worried about status and things that don’t really matter. As I approach my half century I’m increasingly focussed on doing things I really value rather than what I ought. It takes time and effort to make that mental shift need I believe but it’s worth it.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Peter. My change in relationship to my age didn’t happen over night – it took time and effort, but it was damn worth it. In fact, age fear still creeps in from time to time, but I am now able to quickly let it go and focus on how contented I am in this current moment. Thanks for chiming in.

  13. This article is so refreshing. It reminds me of a conversation my sister and I recently had. I am 25 and she is 28 and we spoke of all the frustration and we explained our lives not going according to plan. Why are we not married? Why don’t we have children? Are we truly happy in our career? Are some of the many questions that we asked ourselves. Living our lives on the expectations of others or what we see on TV will only hurt us in the end.

  14. For me, one of the hardest things about aging is being unable to go back and apply the lessons I’ve learned to when I could have really used that knowledge! Ah, well. I do appreciate the fact that I’m not so much in the throes of my emotions anymore. Being mellower is a good thing most of the time.

  15. Hi Allyson

    I genuinely forget how old I am. I have to stop and think about it, which I guess is a sign of ageing! What’s really disorientating though is how quickly your own children grow up, that one really catches me out. I now understand why all parents treat their children as if they are primary school, regardless of how old they really are.
    Thanks for the article. Nice topic, nice ideas. Thank you.

  16. I love this because I’m just getting to the part in life where this stuff happens to me. I just joined the 30’s seven months ago. I secretly dreaded 30. I just thought, “great my life is on the downhill now”, and then my mother died of cancer shortly before my 30th birthday. This year in May, I plan to celebrate my 31st birthday as a revelation that every year we’re above ground, is a year that should be celebrated. My mother only got to live to be 58. She passed away 2 months before her 59th birthday. I plan to live now as grateful for all of my days because you never know when you’ll get a diagnosis that is terminal, or get in a tragic accident, or something. We can do anything we want to as long as we’re still alive. Plus, between my grief, and turning 30, something new has come. Suddenly I’m starting to love every single bit of myself and not care anymore what anyone thinks. I really think a year of grieving and spending a lot of time in deep thought has changed me for good. And I mean that, for good. I am loving who I am becoming! BRING ON MY 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and more!

  17. Dear Allyson,

    Thank you for writing about this important topic – and for not giving away what that topic was in your headline so one could come to your post with an open mind. I think we would be so much happier if the attitude you are exemplifying in your post was the living reality in our society. The fear of getting older really seems to come from a scarcity belief. And yet I heard that every second girl born today will live to be a 100 years (life expectancy is a bit shorter for boys but even that is still long). We have so much more time at our disposal than anytime in human history. And yet there is this pressure to do certain things at certain times. There is some truth to some of them (for instance, in having children before a certain age, especially for women due to biological reasons… but also for men if you want to see your children growing up) but even there the discussion often turns hysteric. I read somewhere that the number of unplanned pregnancies in women in their early 40s is as high as in teenagers. And yes, some medical complications are more likely for those who have children later – but older mothers are also more likely to have a stable environment and personality which is good and safe for their children in others ways.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing!

    Much love,
    Bere

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