Shoe is on the hand that fits, there's really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit, but it's alright
Oh well a touch of gray, kinda suits you anyway,
That was all I had to say, but it's alright
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.
--from “Touch of Gray,” The Grateful Dead
A couple of weeks ago I had my hair cut, and the gray was even more apparent than the previous time. That has become a familiar scenario. It jolted me a bit more this time, though, probably because I’d gone a bit longer between trims. And the grey doesn’t really show unless I have my hair pretty short. In what may surprise many people, that’s part of the reason I keep my hair closely cropped. Maybe it’s baggage from my childhood, but I’ve always been told I look younger than I am…and I’ve never liked it. When I showed up for my first teaching job, the admission director asked if I was there to apply. That didn’t exactly make me feel confident about classroom control.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about our culture’s obsession with looking youthful. I think it was triggered somewhat by the novel I recently finished: India’s Summer by Therese. While it has many themes, one which stands out is how desperately everyone wants to hang on to their youth. Botox treatments and plastic surgery, wearing the same fashions as their children, their language, lying about their age—they do everything possible to remain young, fearful of becoming disposable when they can no longer maintain a certain image. Meanwhile, many of the children are out of control, and their parents cannot understand why.
The novel is rather farcical, as it mocks the stereotypical Southern California star lifestyle. I found myself laughing at several points. Yet I also found myself feeling quite sorry for the characters. Their lives fit the classic, rather clichéd notion of having everything they possibly could want in a material sense, but lacking almost everything in an emotional and spiritual sense. Even what seemed the more stable relationships seemed a bit flimsy. Youthful beauty and exuberance, however superficial, becomes the gold standard of self-worth.
Western culture has, of course, long had a fascination with youth. One of the earliest things I recall learning about in school was Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth around 1500. (Supposedly he expected to find it in Florida, which may explain Miami.) I don’t recall the exact product, but there used to be one that had the slogan “Fight aging every step of the way.” I Googled that, trying to find the product, and received 8330 hits. Marketing studies have shown that the main reason College Hunks Hauling Junk has become so successful is because of the brand affiliation and how it brings back thoughts of the carefree, wilder days of undergraduate life.
While some days I wish I were younger, most of the time I don’t. I look back at the process of growing up, and it was pretty hard work. I think it’s even harder now, for all sorts of reasons. The only way I’d go back would be if I could do so while keeping what I’ve already learned along the way. So when I think about the aging process, I try to reframe it.
To begin, compare the novel and these other points to a story a friend shared with me recently. When he was in university, a couple in their forties arrived for a graduate program. They were from Ethiopia. The woman was very attractive and looked quite young. People regularly complimented her on how youthfully she looked. As the year went on, the woman became increasingly depressed. In her culture, one’s first gray hair is considered a positive event, sort of a coming of age moment when one reaches a certain point of experience and thus deserves respect.
I’ll offer another metaphor. My knees and feet are rather messed up from years of playing soccer. Not so bad that they need surgery, but there are constant aches and pains. I don’t think I could really play anymore, not even in an over-50 league, without really hurting. Yet I can analyze the game better than ever. It also gives me a wonderful perspective about helping young players develop over the long term. I can teach soccer well. So I try to think of all those remnants of injuries not as my body failing, but as badges of honor.
Because kids don’t need adults who don’t want to grow old. Actually, they crave the opposite. They want to see us embracing life, in all its pain and glory, and developing as human beings. They love hearing stories of our growing up, and those stories become the sort of lore that teaches values and expectations and resilience. We have to embrace our role as tribal elders, those who have the experience and perspective that manifests in wisdom.