Next week, I turn forty-six.
It isn’t a terrible number, but I’ll admit that it’s a shock to look in the mirror and see a grayer, saggier version of myself reflected back. Especially since I don’t feel like I’m getting older. Each consecutive year of my forties has been better than the last, and my friends in their fifties say that the best is yet to come. I feel like I’m just hitting my stride.
So I have to ask: What is so bad about aging aside from a few more wrinkles and a major redistribution of fat cells? Why are we so afraid of getting older? And more importantly, how can we embrace aging and transform ourselves into a new and improved version of ourselves with each passing year?
Jane Fonda recently delivered a TEDTalk in which she discussed these very issues. “I have come to find that a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase. The upward ascension of the human spirit bringing us wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity.” Fonda concluded, “Age not as pathology; age as potential.”
I love the idea of age as potential. Our societal belief that the youth culture, with its loud and flashy delivery, produces the world-turning, cutting-edge discoveries and advances. While I love the energy of the younger generation, I believe it takes time to hone and shape true greatness. Years need to be committed to unfolding the wholeness within. It is only after getting some living under our belts that our true power flourishes.
Cases in point:
* The Young@Heart chorus is comprised of performers aged seventy and above. They tour the world performing covers of such diverse artists as The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Coldplay, and James Brown. I highly recommend the award-winning documentary, also called Young@Heart, about this amazing group of senior citizens. (Available on Netflix.)
* Andrea Bocelli was in his mid-thirties when he switched careers, leaving his law practice to become an opera singer even though he was told he was too old.
* Journalist and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas was seventy-eight when she began a campaign to save the Everglades in Florida. She continued her efforts until her death nearly thirty years later.
* Norman MacLean wrote his beautiful novella A River Runs Through It after his retirement at age seventy-one. It was his first book.
* Jane Rowley, a professor at the University of Chicago medical school, was in her late forties when she made discoveries that revolutionized genetics and changed the understanding and treatment of cancer.
* Cory Aquino was a soft-spoken housewife in her fifties when she led a movement to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos and become the first female president of the Philippines.
* Laura Ingalls Wilder was sixty-five when she published Little House in the Big Woods, the first in her eight-book series. Every single one of her books, with the exception of Farmer Boy, is a Newbery Honor book.
* Julia Child decided to learn how to cook at age thirty-six. She published her famous cooking tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking thirteen years later, and she didn’t make her television debut as “The French Chef” until she was fifty-one.
As wonderful as these examples are, I am even more inspired by those closer to my heart who don’t have a Wikipedia page:
* Christine is a college classmate who made her living as a freelance writer. At thirty-five, she traded her pen for a paintbrush. Six years later, she was selling her gorgeous landscapes at a Seattle gallery, and recently sold out her latest show. (http://www.christinegedye.com/)
* Upon hitting her sixties, my mother plunged into life with gusto. She travels through Europe solo, is an active birder, studies French, and writes a weekly blog about topics that pique her interest. I can’t even begin to keep up with her.
* My editors, Ron and Nancy, are eighty-one and eighty. Each week they spend hours dissecting and discussing every sentence I write. They say it keeps them young and sharp. I say that their insightful feedback from their years of collective wisdom challenges me to dive deeper than I ever would have on my own.
* There is a woman in her eighties who I see riding her bike each morning. She is a little wobbly and travels slowly, but she grins broadly as she pedals along.
* My friend Lyn, after raising two children and teaching art to several generations of preschoolers, is now carving out the time to mold her own magical art career. Currently in her mid-fifties, she is setting up shop on Etsy.com where she will sell her stunning creations.
As Gertrude Stein said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
And I will add, it is never too late to discover who you want to be.
There isn’t a whole lot any of us can do about the pull of gravity, but the people mentioned above have discovered the greatest anti-aging secret there is: They keep themselves interested and interesting. For them, aging is not a death knell, it is a call to action. Each morning they wake up with a purpose. They see every passing day as an opportunity. And they retire each night another step closer to their personal greatness.
When you look at aging like that, why would you want to stop the clock?
When I blow out the candles on my cake next week, I know what my birthday wish will be: To become better than ever before. To be as interesting and interested as those listed above who inspire me and prod me to discover my full potential.
This next year, I can’t wait to discover who I will be as I take a few more steps up the stairway.