How do you feel about aging? What does it bring up for you?
This month marks my 49th birthday and so naturally the topic of aging is upfront and center in my brain. While traveling this road to 49, I’ve had waves of different feelings and beliefs flow through me – some more productive than others.
In sharing my reflections with you I hope to invite you to think differently about aging and to challenge some reflexive beliefs you may hold that are otherwise out of your regular awareness and could use some thoughtful attention. I also hope to connect with others who may be struggling with the aging process and are looking for some guidance.
So here’s the deal about aging – as long as we are alive and breathing, we can’t escape the process. From the moment we are born, we are both growing and aging. We will be better off when we learn healthier ways to deal with this process.
HOW DO WE COPE WITH THE AGING PROCESS?
Aging gets a bad wrap in our society for a few reasons. One, we tend to be an image conscious culture that places an inordinate value on youthful and able bodies. As a society, we seem to be at war with aging and fear death.
Consider for a moment how many “anti-aging” products and ads you encounter on a regular basis. Could you imagine what ads we would see if instead of detesting wrinkles as something to erase and escape from, we valued wrinkles and viewed them as expressions of wisdom, life experience and beauty? Where and when did we learn to hate wrinkles so much?
Two, aging can lead to illness and invariably results in the grand finale, death. Since death is not usually a celebrated part of the life journey, nor is it a topic many are excited to discuss, aging and aging-related illnesses by association are regarded with aversion and fear, sometimes even more intense than death itself.
Third, as we age, the door closes on certain possibilities triggering a sense of loss and hard feelings of grief. And frankly, loss and grief are not fun nor easy to deal with – the tendency as such is to avoid.
FEAR OF AGING?
How you experience the aging process is largely determined by how you view it. Put otherwise, the perspective and mindset you hold and nurture plays a very large role in the quality of your daily life.
I’ve met lots of people who dread and fear aging and I can understand why. For all the reasons previously noted such as minimizing certain life possibilities, how aging naturally leads to death, and also because over time and with daily usage, our body’s suppleness and function dwindles.
Each day can bring new aches, pains and wrinkles. Physical and vanity woes can be challenging to accept and adjust to. And if you’ve ever experienced that shock of the incongruity between how you feel inside about yourself and what you see on the outside either in the mirror or a photograph, it can really feel frightening.
“Gosh, is that what I really look like? I felt so full of joy and energy then, but all I see is a tired old hag with bags under her eyes.” Yes, many of us are guilty of speaking about ourselves in harsh and judgmental ways, myself included – which is simply not ok and requires awareness, intention, compassion and practice to shift.
At the age of 40 my first gray hairs sprang forth, reading glasses became a necessity (now I wear bifocals) and I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees – a result of too many years running on New York City concrete. At 45 my upper eyelids began to droop and I joked how they would “borrow” eyeliner from my lower eyelids. Not life or death situations here, yet not entirely fun to deal with either and not exactly how I “wanted it to be.”
HOW TO COPE WITH THE FEAR AND DREAD OF AGING
When life is not how we want it to be, we have a few options: resign, resist or reflect and adapt. Fact: physical and mental decomposition is a reality of the life cycle for all living things and nothing, absolutely NOTHING in life is permanent. Sorry, I don’t mean to depress you, I hope instead to wake you up to the necessity to address this.
So we can either resign ourselves to this fact which might look something like, “Oh f@#! it! Why bother?” Or we can fight and resist aging at all costs thus requiring a good deal of mental, emotional, physical energy and financial means – creams, treatments, botox, surgeries are not cheap! Although they can work for some of the time at least, keeping up the delusion that decomposition is something that can be conquered can be exhausting and depleting.
Another path is to meet the dread, head on. Face the fear that we all age and will ultimately die because in doing so, we can expand our capacity to live fully! What does “meeting the dread” mean?
Meeting the dread means taking time to pause, sit and reflect upon the fear and dread. Face the loss and the grief that is inherent in the aging process. Feel where it lives in your body. Clarify what it’s really made of and unearth the underlying beliefs you hold. Take time to process those feelings through. Bring some curiosity, courage and gentleness to explore what you fear and grieve about aging and its result of dying and challenge some of those beliefs that seem only to stir more fear and angst.
Practice quality self-care, self-compassion, self-love and self-acceptance. They are not just hokie concepts, they are true intentional daily moment by moment practices. Look in the mirror and study your face and body, acknowledge with love and compassion the myriad of functions your body does to carry you through life, and express gratitude for those functions.
Cultivating gratitude, although a simple practice, may not always be easy or even feel “true” at first try. Yet practicing gratitude is one that is most crucial as you journey through life and one that will not betray you. Processing the feelings of fear and loss can be challenging as well, so make sure to do so with support and pace yourself. We never fully know how long we have to inhabit these bodies, take good care and move in them with intention and appreciation.