“The knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor.” (Aldous Huxley)
I drafted this article a few years ago, but out of respect for the privacy of individuals, I did not make the post public. Here it is, now, as the uncomfortable situation it would have created, has been left behind in the shadows cast by father time.
At the time, a few years ago, I had met a very nice gentleman. He was around 65 years old, or so he insisted. It was difficult to ascertain his age, as he had undergone plastic surgeries and face lifts. He indicated that he had lived, and loved gracefully, and achieved all he had wanted to achieve in life. He had three beautiful children, successfully placed and married to good people. He had wonderful grandchildren, or so he said. He had a beautiful home, in an upmarket area of Los Angeles. He had been terribly in love with his wife of more than 35 years who had succumbed to cancer about two years before this incident. According to him, he was done grieving and he strove to prove that by undergoing plastic surgery, by taking flying lessons, by bungee jumping, and what was most disconcerting to me, by hooking up with a string of women half his age, from across the world and offering to marry each one of them
At the time I met him, I myself had confronted loss, and have had myself been dealing with issues related to death and dying. Meeting him at the time was synchronistic, as if the psyche had placed a mirror before me, to bring to my attention my own zombie state of dissociation, my flight from the necessary mourning process, my refusal to live thru the dark night of the soul, the negredo state of Jungian psychology. I never went to such extremes as him, and I sure took nature’s hint and started looking hard at myself, but staying on the topic, I began to struggle to understand what could possibly be underlying such behaviors. The ancients used to say that nothing in life is random. One meets people who have something to teach. And so this chance encounter was of immense personal value to me.
This exercise is undertaken not to demonise his behaviors. Rather, it is a compassionate exploration into the psyche of a man exposed to the harsh reality of his existence, a man so traumatised and fearful of death, dying, and loss, that he is not able to face the truth inherent in his situation. The truth appears so devastating to the psyche that his psyche has to bail him out with crutches of these dissociative strategies that are meant to take the heat away from the reality of the situation. It is the process of aging I am interested in, not the person himself because the aging process seemed to have been arrested by human manouvers and manipulative behaviors – at least in his perception.
It is useful to take a few moments to define the word aging, as it is used in the context of this exploration. Defining it is not so straightforward as it may seem because we have been coached and conditioned to dislike the aging process. Here are the various definitions of aging I captured from websites :
“aging can simply refer to the passage of time and can have a positive connotation as in “aging wine.”
Generally, the term “aging” refers to the biological process of growing older in a deleterious sense, as in “senescence.”
Aging can also be defined as a progressive functional decline, or a gradual deterioration of physiological function with age, including a decrease in fecundity
the incidence of a number of pathologies increases with age
1) an exponential increase in mortality with age; 2) physiological changes that typically lead to a functional decline with age; 3) increased susceptibility to certain diseases with age. So, I define aging as a progressive deterioration of physiological function, an intrinsic age-related process of loss of viability and increase in vulnerability.
A number of characteristic ageing symptoms are experienced by a majority or by a significant proportion of humans during their lifetimes.
- Teenagers lose the young child’s ability to hear high-frequency sounds above 20 kHz.
- Cognitive decline begins in the mid-20s.
- Wrinkles develop mainly due to photoageing, particularly affecting sun-exposed areas (face).
- After peaking in the mid-20s, female fertility declines.
- People over 35 years of age are at risk for developing presbyopia. and most people benefit from reading glasses by age 45–50.The cause is lens hardening by decreasing levels of α-crystallin, a process which may be sped up by higher temperatures.
- Around age 50, hair turns grey. Pattern hair loss by the age of 50 affects about half of males and a quarter of females.
- Menopause typically occurs between 49 and 52 years of age.
- In the 60–64 age cohort, the incidence of osteoarthritis rises to 53%. Only 20% however report disabling osteoarthritis at this age.
- Almost half of people older than 75 have hearing loss inhibiting spoken communication.
- By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.
- Frailty, defined as loss of muscle mass and mobility, affects 25% of those over 85. Atherosclerosis is classified as an ageing disease. It leads to cardiovascular disease (for example stroke and heart attack) which globally is the most common cause of death.
- The maximum human lifespan is suggested to be 115 years “for the foreseeable future”. The oldest reliably recorded human was Jeanne Calment who attained 122 years and died in 1997.
Do you see what is wrong in these definitions of aging that are scattered all over the web? They are fear inducing. They make one feel terrible about aging. None of these definitions discuss the benefits of aging.
The definition, and the enormous body of research, is funded by the pharmaceutical, medical, and anti aging, and beauty products industry, which would be harmed if you stopped being terrified of aging. Hence their efforts to describe as aging as something terribly bad. And their efforts to justify the tax dollars and your savings being channelled into their pockets. It is a business based on promoting fear. They can reap wealth as long as they can keep you terrified of age, aging, death and dying, and keep giving you hope that they will arrest your aging process, if only you keep paying them….
But can aging really be arrested? Cognitively we all know it cannot. Time and tide stops for none, as they say. Everything that begins, has to end. Even life. And yet, what is it that keeps us tethered to the ambrosia of youth? And why? And what is the impact of such an arrest on the aging body and mind of the person, and the body and mind of the children of such a person, and of the society in general. Why do we want to eliminate all conscious thought about the process of aging? What meaning does age have for us as a society today? And has the perception of aging changed over the years? How and why? As usual, until I reach the very core of all such phenomenon, my mind does not rest ! The blog may end, by the thirst for answers is unending.
What would an alternate, more constructive definition of aging be? The ability to be independent, empowered, free of responsibilities, accountability, wise, compassionate, spiritual (hopefully), evolved, respected…the list is endless. But essentially the core of aging process constitutes of liberty, and wisdom. There – if I repeat this as much as the dark things about aging are repeated, would you really be as terrified of aging, death and dying? I wonder how I grew up to this definition of aging?
I come from a small town in the Himalayas called Kashmir. With literacy rates of 100%, and financial independence, women had unlimited powers. My great grandmother was a headmistress of a school in a small village, a feminist as far back as mid to late 1800s. My grandfather was born in 1910, just around the WWI timeframe. I grew up with him, and saw my grandmother wield a kind of feminine power that even I – 50-100 years later – cannot dream of. As far back as I can remember, in our familial setting – age was an asset. Children and adults gave into the wishes of older adults. The older you were, the more you were respected, and pampered, listened to, respected. Adolescence and young adulthood carried with itself absolutely no power of persuation and freedom, for we were tethered to the wishes of those who were older than us. As a kid I remember thinking “I would love to be in her shoes!” and looking forward to becoming older. Women were especially powerful in our community, because they owned the obedience and powers of their sons. Mothers were goddesses in power and prestige, although such a position came with all the roles and responsibilities of a benign and benevolent goddess.
I was smug in the knowledge that one day I would inherit that kingdom from my grandmothers and my mothers ! Age was good. Age made you powerful. This is all I had seen, and knew, for I knew no other way of life.
Correlated to such thinking, disease in our family was more an exception than a rule. Men and women had relatively healthy lives and usually died, with all their faculties intact, in their mid nineties. My grandfather, for example, who passed away a few years ago, was 95, sharp as a button, very wilfull, aware, on his toes, and quite a handful till the very end.
Growing up, I had never heard anyone unhappy with their age. There was no one – including young girls, or women, who expressed the desire to “remain young.” Age was such a non issue. Perhaps ours was an exceptional community, or perhaps I lived during exceptional times which exist no more. We lacked awareness, or desire for plastic surgery. Women who did that were a butt of jokes – they were assumed to be unintelligent, lacking in self confidence, desperate for male attention which probably was not forthcoming unless they made great efforts at becoming externally beautiful. There was no desire to overdress, or under-dress, to over or underexpose, to pile on too much makeup simply to look younger, or older. Women – and men – accepted their age, with grace and hoped to grow in wisdom. Their clothing, lifestyle, makeup etc automatically evolved to reflect their change of life-stage. There were no big bashes at 30, 40, 50. No one mourned the passage from 40-50 or from 50 – 60 or beyond. We were simple people with simple needs and desires. And we were very healthy and happy bunch of people too !
Given that background, and upbringing, I have never been able to look at age as a liability, or as something one has to hide, or dislike, or be wary of.
Age is. It simply is. It remains as is. What increases and evolves, with time, is the mind. The consciousness. The ability of a person to think, to analyse, to understand, to marvel, to wonder, to become more and more curious of everything around, and hence, to hopefully unite with the universe. And each passing day that unfolds, brings with it the promise of wisdom, grace and expansion of consciousness.
I first became aware of this dissonance between myself and the outer world during my MSW. My class was primarily dominated by 20 and 30 year olds. For some reasons, 29 is deemed perfect age by a lot of women. They say it is a magical number for age. Not too young, and just short of 30 – which some think is too old. Somehow, most of the women in my class were 29. Or so they said.
A 29 year old girl/child/woman in my class argued that when she thought of age, she thought of disease, incapacitated thinking, old fashioned way of life. She never wanted to grow old, she said. And while she was saying it, she looked at me – as if to apologise for her “inconsiderate statements” and “harsh truths” as she later said they were. I was in my mid 40s at the time, and had never thought of myself as “old”. I didn’t even think my grandfather – 80 at the time – was old. I simply did not relate human aches and pains with age. I was unafraid. And I remain so till date – despite the aches and pains.
So her words came as a shock to me.
And as if on cue, the instructor looked at me for my response because I was, as it was perceived, on the “wrong side of life” (ha!).
I looked at the 29 year old apologetically, excused myself for what I was going to say, and said that I loved my age, that I would dislike being 29 now that I had tasted my 40s, that I looked forward to growing older and wiser.
There was a dramatic pause as people attempted to digest this strange fact from a person who was purportedly looking at sickeness and decay, and should have been terrified of it. I was asked to explain myself.
Why would I want to be 29? I remember myself at that age. Full of myself, dumb and stupid – or at least unintelligent in the worldly ways, working 14 hours per day to earn more and more and more, unsatisfied, greedy, ambitious, lacking compassion, unaware of my true self, struggling to keep everyone happy but never being quite being able to do so, trying, trying, trying so hard to fit in, to be loved, to be accepted, to be an ideal – ideal mother, ideal wife, ideal daughter, ideal employee, struggling with kids, career, an inconsiderate husband, a demanding mother in law, a boss, several “close” friends who wanted more from me, a family who expected more………. and I – with no sense of boundaries, I – who had never learnt to say no, or enough, or go away…………………..
Oooooooffff…..never again. Why would I want to be that person again? I was infinitely less intelligent, less aware, less wise, less determined, less confident, less empowered, less capable, less satisfied and very less accepting of my life, my family, my body, my relationships, my status, my material and financial position in life, than I now am.
And that was not just me, every one at 29 is more or less the same. People sorta go thru a haze, live on steroids, thrive on ups and downs, struggle, endure. Always striving. Always desperate. Trying. Yearning. Needing. A bundle of unending wants, unrealized ambitions, unfulfilled desires.
Fast forward to 40s and 50s. If a person has lived well, and has build a strong foundations of a well defined self in early life, and has completed each Eriksonian life stage well, aging would be a pleasure. It would be wisdom oriented. Peaceful. A sense of completeness envelops the human being. Jung called this individuation. I call it coming into oneself. Coming of age in the real sense. This, is who I wanted to be. This, is who I was destined to be. And there is an acceptance of oneself. A certitude, of being. Of continuity of being. Not as a physical body – for yes, there is death – but as an entity, a spec of consciousness that transcends time and space. It has been. It is. It will remain. In some form or other. It is transcendent. 29 again? You must be kidding !!!
This is the gift of my ancestors to me. It is a psychic dna I inherited from my forefathers. It is irreplaceable. It is invaluable. It is the gift of aging process – because I accept my age. My consciousness is free to bestow these gifts on me, because the mind is not turned into a pretzel trying to keep from my conscious mind, the awareness of aging, death and dying. I don’t seek to retrograde.
No longer do I dress to please others, or eat to remain shapely, or smile to endear myself. Everything I do, is for me. There’s an immense sense of freedom from being outside the societal bounds, and bonds. I exist – independent of others. It is an indescribable feeling one can only experience if one accepts their aging process. I am grateful, compassionate, willing but also determined. I have boundaries. I love my solitude. I am alone, never lonely. I have faith, hope, and dreams of a better tomorrow. I enjoy my retirement. Why would I want to hold onto being 20 and 30 ?
Holding on creates a basis for developmental arrest. A 15 year old behaving like a 5 year old is not a pleasant sight. Neither is a 40 year old behaving like a 20 year old. Why, then, is it ok for a 60 year old to think and feel like 40? Whats wrong with being 60? More important – why would you want to give up all the good things associated with aging, and remain develomentally arrested, tethered to an earlier stage of life ? Doesn’t make sense to me. One doesn’t stay in Kindergarten, or Primary School, or even in Middle or High School. Moving on is considered as progress, and enjoying each stage of life, for what it is, is progress oriented. It helps one grow, expand, evolve.
But we get stuck at a particular age, and wish to be seen, considered, acknowledged as being “young” or “younger than we actually are”. And unfortunately we may get what we desire – we get a developmental arrest! Our mind stops growing as our reluctance to grow, to age, is transmitted to our psyche, and the psyche follows the heart’s desire. All growth stops. And where there is no growth, no movements, there is stagnation and rot. Our refusal to grow prevents progress, impedes wisdom, and allows for rot.
This is exactly what had happened to the gentleman I mentioned at the beginning of my blog. A terrifying existential loneliness and isolation at his wife death possibly demolished the structures of certitude, and predictive validity. In his mind, nothing was certain. The continuity of the world as he knew it, was broken.
This could have been a growth oriented, evolutionary and enlightening experience if handled well, if he only could have let it be. Depression is when our psyche turns inwards and collects our internal resources so it can take the next big leap forward. Emerging from depression takes you multiple steps forward. But we have to have the courage, and ability to endure that depressive state.
For him, the encounter with and the inevitability of death, and the recognition of his own mortality should have created hope, faith, and a new awareness and understanding of the universe, if only he had let it. He would have grown wiser, and more compassionate in acceptance, and his exploration of the meaning of death, dying.
Instead, he shut the doors on wisdom, and hid himself under mountains of ignorance. He chose the route of developmental arrest as a way of dealing with these difficult life situations and questions, thus taking backwards steps and undoing his own progress. The lessons and the opportunities of life – the jewels of his life-stage – were wasted on him. He psychopathically retreated into the bottomless pit of terrifying helplessness.
When he emerged, he could only do by dissociating from the reality of existence, and retreating into a make believe world of “youngness”. Facelift, bungee jumping, women, sex, and other stimulation “arrested”, or “frozen” in time his psychic development, even while his body moved forward in the aging process.
This is a big, big dissonance, which is correlated with and a causation of mental health problems as we age. These mental health problems manifest as physical sickness that aging is associated with. Peter Pan would be the most depressing, depressed and sick person on earth in my opinion.
I knew him for a substantial amount of time after this encounter. And he remained “young”. Where ever he is today, I hope he is well even though I very much doubt it. The increase in dissonance has its own disadvantages. It is almost as if you are pulling two parts of you apart. Something inside eventually tears irrevocably. Did I tell you everyone in my family is healthy, and dies healthy? May be good genes, but may also be the lack of such dissonance.
Avoiding the issue of aging, refusing to grow up, is just escapism. It is not truth. It does not help us in any way. It prevents us from being smarter than our kids, and the young adults. It impedes our development. It disables us from experiencing the benefits that age confers on us – the expansion of our consciousness and wisdom – which in turn – leave us stupid and ignorant.
Perhaps that is the reason for an anarchic world today. We are living longer, but that longevity is not supported by increase in wisdom and intelligence. Therefore, be careful what you wish for. The universe is receptive, it hears, and confers. Your wishes will always be granted. Please don’t wish for a developmental arrest.
Come, grow old along with me….life has been very beautiful so far…… but the best is yet to be…