Recently, I decided to grow a beard. I had one for a few weeks in my early 30s, but shaved it because it was too prickly and uneven. I decided to give it another go while on vacation a month ago.
Just for the fun of it, I posted a selfie on Instagram and asked people to vote on whether or not I should keep it. Over 60 percent of my followers said, “Yes, keep it.” But the comments were even more interesting.
One person wrote, “Awesome! Love it! You looked young previously, but now . . . you’ve ‘shaved’ 20 more years off! Keep it!” Another wrote, “To be honest, it makes you look older. (Did I just say that? You asked for it.) Also, not a fan of beards at all. I personally like the clean look.”
The Quest for the Fountain of Youth
Whether people said the beard made me look older or younger, they shared a common belief. This idea permeates contemporary culture, namely, that younger is good and older is bad.
Modern culture is obsessed with the pursuit of youthfulness. As a result, we have a multi-billion dollar industry whose primary purpose is to roll back the years and make us appear younger than we really are. Consider, for example,
- Hair coloring to “wash away the gray,”
- Skin treatments, botox injections, and even cosmetic surgery to eliminate wrinkles,
- Body implants to reverse the effects of aging ,
- Exercise programs, protein supplements, and even steroid use to build back our muscle mass and give us the sculpted appearance of a 24-year-old.
When I’m traveling, I occasionally come across someone desperate to hang onto their youth—a man wearing an ill-fitting toupee, a woman who’s had a little too much cosmetic surgery, or a middle-aged person sporting skinny jeans.
Of course, not all aids of this kind are bad. I use skin lotion and have long touted the importance of exercise. I’m not in favor of aging faster; I’m just unwilling to live in denial. I am getting older—and that’s not a bad thing.
Ancient cultures almost universally esteemed older people. For example, consider these three verses from the Bible:
- “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32, NIV) .
- “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 20:29, NIV) .
- “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31, NIV).
According to this ancient wisdom, gray hair is a “splendor.” Rather than something to cover up, it’s something to be embraced, something glorious That’s still true in some places. But it’s the exact opposite of how our culture sees it.
The problem with this quest for eternal youth is that it makes us weaker, both as individuals and as a society. When we disdain aging and the effect that has on us, we feel a constant sense of discontent, failure, and even shame. The more we idolize youth, the more we dislike ourselves. No wonder Americans are the most medicated people on earth!
And as a society, we tend to miss out on the benefit of wisdom that comes with age. When we amplify the voices of youth but refuse to listen to those who are more mature, we lose decades of hard-won experience.
So how do we reframe aging and make our peace with it? By recalibrating our belief system based on these three truths.
Three Truths About Aging
1. Death is inevitable. For many people, that is a scary thought. Aging is a reminder that they are moving toward the inevitable. Many cope by living in denial.
Others aren’t quite sure about what happens after death, so they are desperate to prolong human life by any means possible. While I certainly want to live as long as possible, much of the longevity movement is based on the assumption that science will eventually “cure” death. It won’t, and the sooner we accept that fact the sooner we can be content with the aging process.
2. Aging is tolerable. Yes, we can slow the process. We can eat well, take supplements, and get sufficient rest and exercise—and I do. But at best these merely slow the process. We’re still going to age. For nearly all of us, wrinkles and gray hair are inevitable results.
But we don’t have to see this as a bad thing. Every life stage has its advantages. As the Roman philosopher Cicero observed, “Life has a single path and you travel it once. Each stage of life has its own appropriate qualities—weakness in childhood, seriousness in middle age, and maturity in old age. These are fruits that must be harvested in due season.”
Sure, younger people usually have more energy, strength, and attractiveness. So what? Older people, generally speaking, have more experience, more money, and fewer obligations. Accept whatever life stage you are in gracefully, and enjoy its benefits.
3. Wisdom is vital. The reason many cultures have esteemed the elderly is that, all things being equal, old age correlates with wisdom. This is the ability to choose a course of action based on knowledge, experience, and reflection. And that makes for a better life—both for us and for our communities.
While aging is inevitable; wisdom is optional. You have to choose it. This requires having the humility to acknowledge mistakes. We all make them, and that’s okay, provided we grow from them.
To do that, we need a disciplined practice of self-reflection. As George Santayana said, “Those who don’t learn from the past are destined to repeat it.”
For me, daily journaling is the single best way to process my experiences in real time. In ensures that everything is processed, nothing wasted. It gives me a chance to wring the juice out of both the good and bad experiences. As a result, I can honestly say that I’m happier and living better than ever before.
Reframe Your View
You view of aging matters because it determines whether you will become happier and wiser as you grow old, or be increasingly discontent and dissatisfied with your life. Having higher regard for old age begins by owning our own age. Stop denying it and trying to hide it. If we have wrinkles, awesome. Gray hair? That’s great.
You get to choose what those things mean. You can listen to our culture and feel shame, or you can embrace them as signs of your increasing value to others.
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