Fourteen years ago, when I was forty, I happened to glance into a mirror. It was a winter evening, and the room was lit by only a bare bulb. In the poor light my face for the first time looked old. “I’m a severe old lady!” I thought, and thus began my mourning.
Mourning is definitely the right word for the denial, sadness, and endurance I experienced then and still do now. I feel about my youth the same way I feel about someone who has died – the forgetfulness that buries the loss until something brings it to mind, the subsequent gut-wrenching sorrow, the resentment and desire to bargain . . . Why do I feel this way? I’ve thought of all the obvious reasons, but I’m not sure that they entirely explain my reaction to aging.
There’s some vanity behind my mourning, of course. I was never beautiful, but I was nicer looking and in better shape thirty years ago than I am now. There’s also the related loss of hope – thirty years ago, if I didn’t like how I looked, I could work out, get a different haircut, change my life, and somehow fix myself. But now no matter how hard I swim upstream, the current is still taking me downward. And each year I can’t swim quite as powerfully.
There’s the realization that all those things I planned to do one day are a lot less likely to get done. I may still learn another foreign language, but I don’t think I’m going to climb Annapurna. And I’ll ultimately be left behind by the young people who will – or at least might – do the things I no longer can.
Do I dread the kindly condescension that I’ll receive if I live long enough? I already don’t like the check-out clerk calling me sweetie and asking me if I have a senior discount. I may have some fear about my husband’s and my ability to take care of ourselves, especially as I watch the nightfall of my mother’s dementia. Perhaps I also sense my children’s worry that we will grow old and leave them alone one day.
Yes, yes, I have answers – good, correct answers – for each of these. Old age is not coming as a surprise, after all. I’ve known since I was young that I would get old if I lived, and I’ve never tried to avoid or sugar-coat that fact. But those answers don’t satisfy me, don’t soften the long goodbye that I can see ahead as, with a painful squeeze of the heart, I notice that my husband’s hair is thinning or that my hands are getting wrinkled.
Certainly my sense of mourning is a result of sin; but do I mourn because of my own vanity and pride? That’s a large part of it. But I also mourn because all people have mourned since sin and death entered the world. It could be that my feeling of “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!” is an accurate and healthy one. Aging would be a different thing if it wasn’t for the Fall, I’m sure, and sometimes it intrigues me to speculate how glorious immortal life would have been – and then I mourn some more.
Well, I can’t do anything about all the “ifs” and “buts.” My only recourse is to deal with the life I have. I know that I’m healthy and capable, with a good family, a meaningful job that I can do for many more years, and surroundings of peace and plenty. I can thank God for stripping aside the accidents of my life and soul and focusing on their substance. I need to be grateful that he’s enabling me to develop true faith, hope, and love and not just rely on the exuberance of youth. I should rejoice that he’s introducing me to that perseverance that is so highly praised in the Bible. I can only lay down my life to God for loving me, a dying person. After all, I’ve been dying since I was born. God has not changed toward me since I’ve gotten older; I’ve changed toward myself.
These thoughts are all so true and wise and mature. I could write pages of philosophy and poetry and mediation – but damn it, I hate the whole process of aging with all my heart, and no philosophy or understanding mitigates my hatred in the least.
Pray for me, brothers and sisters, to the Lord our God.