There is a game on Facebook currently that involves posting a profile picture from ten years ago with a current profile photo. From what I can tell, the accompanying narrative involves a consideration of "how well you have aged."
This morning I looked through my profile photos and found the first one I posted in 2007.
I don't have a lot of great face shots from the last few months but I did take this selfie a day ago that can be a decent point of comparison, even though I was right out of the shower and generally my hair does look a tad bit better than how it looks in this picture.
So, Facebook, you ask how well have I aged?
I need glasses to read now, I have more grey hair, more wrinkles, my skin is thinner and looser, and while I weigh about the same, my body composition is surely different and the rate at which my body recovers from activity has changed. Without a doubt, anyone with eyes to see can observe for themselves the visible signs of physical aging I am describing. And look, I moisturize, take my vitamins, exercise, meditate, eat reasonably well and still, my physical body is changing. I am okay with the changes so far.
What I am not sure the photos capture is the inner work of aging well.
I have been lucky to be mentored by wise women since I was a teenager. From counselors and college professors, to 12-step sponsors, friends, students, and colleagues, I have always had friends both older and younger than me. One of my mentors once told me that "Aging gracefully does not happen by itself. If you want to age gracefully, Christina, you will have to work at it."
We live an a culture obsessed with appearances. Of course, this statement is not news to anyone reading this blog. My point is that a zillion times a day, not only are we bombarded with images of beauty that are generally white, young, thin, able-bodied, etc., we are also battered with the message that beauty and appearances are things in which we should invest our time, money, energy and attention. A question such as "How well have you aged?" is resting in a context of youth-centric, appearance-based values, as if continuing to look young, and therefore beautiful, means we are somehow succeeding at the process of aging.
Truth be told, I find that culturally-sanctioned premise shallow and uninteresting. And yet, because of the prevalence of such messages, it seems to me that we do have to "work" a bit on aging gracefully,
A few years ago, I decided not to color my hair as it was becoming streaked with grey and silver because it seemed to me that built into the mechanisms of physical aging are reminders of mortality. Personally, I want a reminder that I do not have all the time in the world to live my life. I want a daily reminder that time is passing and I want to make use of the time I have to live authentically. From grey hair to wrinkles to crepey skin (which I didn't even know was a thing to look forward to until a few years ago!) our bodies are reminding us that they are going to go.
Conventional thinking on aging seems to fall into two primary categories, from what I observe. One strategy that many try is to hide all signs of aging, to ignore the inevitability of aging and death and to, in a variety of ways, shake one's fist at fate saying, "Aging, you won't get me!" The second orientation seems to be a type of resignation that blames aging for an inevitable decline in vitality, capacity, etc.
Aging gracefully, for me, is some kind of middle ground between these two extremes of conventional thinking. The middle ground I seek- and that I witnessed in my many wise mentors over the years- acknowledges the necessary changes and losses that time has brought and will continue to bring, while developing a deeper understanding of Life and Self. For me, how well I am aging, has more to do with who I am growing into and giving expression to, than how youthful I appear. From a yoga perspective, that the body is going to go, is not bad news because the teachings remind us that our spiritual essence, our truest nature, continues after the body dies. Aging gracefully, for me, rests on the promise that I can deepen my connection to that essence and live in an expanding relationship to what is deepest and truest within me.
And look, I don't mean to get too lofty about it. I am just saying that in the twelve years between the two pictures I shared, I have grown a lot. My life didn't get better in twelve years; my life got different. I stopped asking "Who do I want to be?" and setting external goals to improve myself. I started asking, "Who am I?" and found ways to let myself be who I actually am, rather than who I think I should be or who I think others think I should be.
In a lot of ways, on the surface I am a bit less together than I used to be. On the inside, however, I feel like myself more of the time. I am more spacious with the wholeness of who I am-- a caring, compassionate, full-of-fire, opinionated, outspoken, anxious, joyful, funny, and suspicious, etc. person full of flaws and gifts in equal measure. I am quicker to forgive myself and others. I have learned how to ask for forgiveness when I make mistakes and hurt other people. I feel more loving more of the time. I feel loved more of the time. I also stopped worrying when I didn't feel loved or loving, trusting in what is deeper than the inevitable ebbs and flows of my emotional life.
So I have more wrinkles and more grey hair. My body is aging. And my perspectives are maturing and expanding. All in all, a pretty good trade so far.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."