Looking Where We Are Going: Releasing the Fear of Getting Old by Marian Van Eyk McCain
It was one of those television shows that half the nation watches. But since my partner and I are fortunate enough not to share our home with a TV set, until last October I had never seen that show before.
On that October morning, I happened to be staying with friends, in a house where breakfast conversation was as long gone as the moa and the mammoth. So to be polite, when I walked into the room and found everyone dully watching the screen, I took my place on the sofa, alongside all the other millions.
The woman being interviewed was around fifty. The superb, high cheek-bones that had been her passport to success, were still apparent, and anyone more media literate than I would have known who she was. But oh dear, the skin that covered those bones was sagging now, and that is why she was here—a brave lady, said the producer - telling us about it. It was sagging in all the usual places where our skin loosens as we age and lose our youthful fleshiness —the cheeks, the forehead, around the eyes. (Mine has been like that for years. But then, I am nearly sixty-seven).
“I look so tired, now” she said, staring at her own reflection in the plastic surgeon’s mirror.
She did, too. But it was not the tiredness of a day’s hard labor in the fields or the delicious weariness of a long-distance walker. It was a thin, petulant tiredness, an empty tiredness that dulled her famous face, almost into nothingness.
You might walk past that face which had graced so many magazine covers and not even notice it. Not because her cheekbones were any lower, but because her eyes were empty. There was no soul showing. There possibly never had been, I suspected. But under the mask of make-up and the practiced, commercial smile, that had never mattered before. It was clear that what she wanted was to have her young face returned to her—or rather, a reconstructed version of it.
The camera panned a pastiche of magazines. There was her life. She wanted it back. And—for who knows how many thousand dollars—the kindly surgeon promised he would restore it to her. Was that not kind and noble of him to give this poor woman back her beauty? To glue the faded petals carefully on to the rose again?
In gruesome detail, he showed us what he would do. A simple little nick here, a tuck there, all neatly hidden behind the hairline.
That was when I got up and went in to the kitchen, to make myself some breakfast and have a conversation with the cat. At some later point, glancing back into the darkened living-room, I saw a brief shot of that woman’s sliced up face, swollen beyond recognition, undergoing its longed-for rearrangement. I felt too sickened to go back in and watch the rest.
I suppose I should have done. I could have gone in there with one of those little bags you find in the backs of airline seats, and sat the program out. I often tell myself that I really should make more effort to comprehend and understand the full awfulness of mainstream culture. But to be honest, I do not have the stomach for it.
While I was watching her talk to the surgeon and bemoan her “tired” face, all I wanted to do was to burst into that TV studio, take that woman by the shoulders and shake her awake.
After I had shaken her, what then? Oh yes, I fantasized that, too. I would put her in a taxi, take her to the airport, and drag her on to a plane for Africa or rural India or Bangladesh. And I would make her work. Not draping around in front of a camera, or mincing down catwalks, but proper work. Together, she and I would help the village women plough their ground. We would plant vegetables and weave baskets and fetch water. We would hug trees in defiance of the chainsaws, stop the dams, milk the goat, pick wild herbs, tend a sick child and a dying person. We would sing, play drums and dance in the firelight. We would talk together about the meaning of life and death, and watch the stars against a velvet black sky.
Some year, when she came home—if she ever did come home—she would look at her face again in the mirror and enjoy the face that smiled back at her. She would touch her fingertips to her weathered, withered cheeks and marvel at the grandeur of a wise, old face like that. And if you dared to suggest to her that she might want to slice it up and rearrange it, she would throw her head back and laugh a full-throated laugh and say you must be nuts. “But,” she might add, eyeing you shrewdly, “If you are offering, I’ll take the money instead, please. I know a village that needs cash for a new well .....”
Yes, it would have felt good to do all that. But all I did was to sit and finish my breakfast and complain to the cat about our society’s idiotic attitudes to aging.
How did we miss that sage piece of advice given by Carl Jung about what he called “the afternoon of life?” For as he pointed out, that afternoon has its own agenda. It should not be lived, he warned, according to the program of life’s morning. Which is what this poor woman with the empty eyes was trying to do.
It is a project that is doomed to fail. Botox injections, cosmetic surgery and HRT cannot keep us young. They only keep us looking backwards, longingly, at a youth we can never have again.
Imagine if we drove our cars like that—looking only out of the back window instead of at where we were going. We would soon crash. Which of course is exactly what so many people do. They crash into illness, obesity, depression; into meaninglessness, into emptiness. Or into an endless round of golf, voyeuristic travel to pretty places behind the safe portholes of a cruise ship, shopping for the sake of shopping, or worrying about investments and reading magazines about how to cope with incontinence, Alzheimer’s, and not being able to get in and out of the bath.
But there’s a new wave gathering. Just when it will run up on the shores of mainstream awareness, I cannot say, but I feel it getting bigger and stronger, all over the so-called Western world. It is nothing less than the full revival of powerful elderhood.
In little pockets of awareness here and there, the Baby Boom is, despite all its kicking and screaming, starting to wake up to the possibility that getting old might, after all, be a grand adventure rather than a disaster from which to hide one’s eyes.
In aging, as in everything else, the Cultural Creatives, as we call them, are the ones quietly crafting a whole new approach.
Ram Dass, that mushroom-tripping guru of the sixties, who has remained an icon ever since, with his self-deprecating wit, wide smile and ever-growing wisdom, started running “conscious aging” workshops, a few years ago, when he was 62. Then he began to write a book about this new approach. His book was almost finished when a massive stroke nearly killed him. Now, confined to a wheelchair & somewhat aphasic, but irrepressible as ever, he writes “I’m the advance scout for the experience of aging, and I’ve come back from the scouting party to bring good news.”
As he and others have attested, old age is not a disaster at all. On the contrary, if you really embrace it, the so-called “third age” can turn out to be an even more wonderful and interesting adventure than the other two ages—childhood and maturity—put together.
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, who was probably the first to offer workshops for conscious aging, has a name for this process of reframing our stereotyped image of what it means to get old. He refers to it as the move “ from aging to sage-ing”.
One of the hardest challenges for women—and the one that woman on the TV show could not rise to meet—is to accept the loss of youthful, sexy looks and the onset of gray hair, wrinkles, sagging skin and breasts. Trying to hold back this change reminds Ram Dass of “someone rushing around the fields in the autumn painting the marvelous gold and red leaves with green paint. It’s a lot of wasted time and energy.”
There are so many other things, he might have added, which could well have been done with all that time and energy.
In ages past, women—especially older women—were the healers and comforters, the midwives, the attendants at the doors of birth and death, and the trustees of wisdom. They had a special relationship with Nature and all the Earth’s creatures.
Persecuted, over several centuries, their numbers decimated and their power wrested from them, women have carried, in their collective psyche, a fear of reclaiming those important roles. But the time has come, now, for them to reach out and own them again. Only by so doing, I believe, can some of the current imbalances in the yin/yang of our planet be corrected.
To the fifty year old woman, faced with her increasing invisi-bility in the popular culture and her falling stocks in the sexual market place, being advised to accept the process might seem at first like the cruelest irony. That which made her feel the most womanly—her juiciness, her fullness, her raw energy, her sexual attractiveness—is what she is being asked to relinquish.
Yet these are the very things she has to be able to give up gra-ciously to be complete as a woman. It is the woman who no longer tries to be what she once was, but fully embraces what she now is, who is, truly, the most womanly of all. The elderwoman, or “crone” is more completely a woman than any other female person, for she is the one who has lived each stage of the cycle.
Only by living the whole cycle, from birth, through childhood, maturity and old age, can we experience the full range of what it is to be human.
To do so is, in fact a privilege, for not everyone is able to stay here that long. (If you asked any terminally ill person of forty or fifty whether they would swap their present predicament for a healthy old age, complete with wrinkles, how many would say no?) Our ancestors, just like those dying people, had to condense their whole life experience into a much shorter time span than many of us will have to. Archaeological studies show that Neanderthal people rarely lived beyond their thirties. Even in the 1800s, to be fifty was to be an old man or woman. So we are, if you think about it, incredibly lucky.
Yet how many of us move forward into these “bonus” decades with a full-bodied, open-hearted, enthusiastic acceptance of the aging process? How many of the Baby Boom generation see themselves as apprentices for real, wise elderhood; the sort of elderhood and wisdom our planet desperately needs and is so patently short of right now?
How many are there, waiting in the shadows, wondering if others are thinking the same way?
They are there, right enough. I think we shall be surprised how many.
So please come out and be counted. And don’t worry if your face looks “tired.” You’ll be tired all over by the time you are through. But it will feel good, I promise. ....
Marian Van Eyk McCain, BSW (Melbourne), MA, East-West Psychology (C.I.I.S. San Francisco) is a free-lance writer with publishing credits in a wide range of subjects, including wellness, stress-management, psychology, women’s health and spirituality, environmental politics, organic growing and alternative technology. Marian is author of Transformation through Menopause (Bergin & Garvey 1991), written for women who seek a deep understanding of their menopause process, and ELDERWOMAN: reap the wisdom...feel the power...embrace the joy, a comprehensive trail guide to the post-menopausal years. Marian can be contacted at www.elderwoman.org.