There are six myths about old age: 1. That it’s a disease, a disaster 2. That we are mindless 3. That we are sexless 4. That we are useless 5. That we are powerless 6. That we are all alike.Maggie Kuhn
I suspect that most of us don’t think about our older-selves-to-be in very much detail, if at all.
A few years ago, I wrote in this column: “The other day I caught a glimpse of myself as I passed the hallway mirror. I stopped and backed up a few steps for a longer gaze. What grabbed my attention was a flap of skin. I know I had seen it before, just under my chin and above my throat. But I’d also seen it on other older people.”
My cousin lives in a skilled nursing facility. I haven’t seen him since before the pandemic. Over the years, I’ve watched him go from working and mobile and energetic with an incisive mind to a disorganized incisive mind. But the main thing I remember about him these days is the hair growing out of his ears, and how I noticed it more the older he got. This helps me to think about my future self in more detail.
It took an effort for me to even think about my potential physical changes, let alone graphically picture them. I can notice my present changes, like the flap of skin under my chin, but it’s different for me to imagine the future possibilities in detail, not just as generalities. And an even further step will be for me to actually accept them as they manifest.
Even as I write this, I am keenly aware of you-the-reader’s possible reaction. Are you put off by being encouraged to picture the future hair growing out of your ears? And if so, why? If you do get to that point, it means you have lived longer. Isn’t that a good thing?
One way to look at it is that we’ve survived adulthood. And that is cause for celebration. And if we do get there, inevitably we will have changed. That’s just life. Life is change.
This brings us back to wabi sabi, which means “appreciating the beauty of impermanence.” Which leads to appreciating the fact we’ll still be alive — changed, imperfect, and alive.
I just came across this poem written by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle:
Don’t deplore your aging body;
It is your natural inheritance.
Don’t judge your falls of flesh;
Rather thank your body for how it has supported you.
Don’t take your eyes from the old woman who sits opposite you;
Her world is your world;
You only reside in an earlier time.
Don’t deplore her slower movements, her repetitive gestures;
She’s confirming the reliability of an increasingly uncertain world.
Don’t trumpet your superiority in relation to her;
She is here to show you where you are going.
Her presence alone can teach you the acceptance of age.
Don’t feel sorry for her because she’s old;
Her world is as precious to her as yours is to you.
Don’t dismiss her because she just sits there apparently doing nothing;
She’s showing you how to be in this moment.
Don’t let the pain of separation deceive you;
You are not separate; it’s only your mind that creates separation.
Don’t throw her out of your heart because she is old;
She is your mother, your sister.
She is you.