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?
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.
Photo by Ant Jackson