Many of us are afraid to get older. We live in a world that warns us that everything young and youthful is desirable and everything old (“Don’t look your age”) is awful. Last week, a new client called me, saying “I just cancelled my facelift. I hate looking older but thought maybe it would be better (and a lot cheaper) talking with you.”
She’s right on both counts.
It sure is interesting getting older. At age 68, people often tell me, “Oh, you don’t look your age!” I used to hear that and feel so lucky, but I started to question where it was taking me: “What happens when people don’t tell you that anymore? Have you become dependent on looking younger than your peers?”
I wonder if this is how Cher feels?
Anyway, it’s not unusual for anyone – regardless of age – to hate how they look. When you add wrinkles, sun spots and saggy skin to that face in the mirror, many of us don’t want to grow older. As we enter our forties, fifties, sixties, and beyond, we may feel useless, irrelevant and invisible: focusing on being “older” without experiencing the benefits of being a “Wise Elder”.
What’s the difference?
Wise Elders typically find a greater self-acceptance: we’re not obsessed with being/looking youthful. We can continue to be productive and successful, but we may want to “do” less, be less frenetic, dramatic and judgmental. We may find ways to make peace with our limitations and – surprisingly – find ourselves less emotionally fragile. Our internal critic calms down. We discover that we’re kinder to ourselves and others than ever before.
As Wise Elders, we have a sense of perspective: we’ve lived through a lot of experiences, so when things don’t go our way, we can remember “oh yeah, I remember feeling like this” and use this wisdom to stay calm. At 68, I don’t get upset as easily as I used to and, when I do, it doesn’t last as long.
I sometimes ask clients who aspire to be Wise Elders to do a life review: draw a horizontal line divided into decades and record the key events, people and transitions you experienced in each decade. Usually, you’ll recognize patterns, recall forgotten moments and feel more gratitude for how your life has unfolded.
A life review also shows you parts of your life where you still have regrets: maybe you wanted to take dance lessons as a kid but your parents thought it was a waste of time and that your gift got “lost”. Well, it may be possible to recapture those lost gifts, reclaiming youthful hopes and dreams that got smashed to bits.
Another exercise I offer clients is “the deathbed exercise”: on your deathbed, what will you regret not having done? Is it absolutely too late? Can you at least do some of it? Maybe you can’t go hitchhiking around the world at age 55, but you could travel to some of the places you fantasized about hitchhiking to. A friend of mine recently started skateboarding. He’s 79. I thought he was crazy, but he loves it. Another friend of mine has begun mountain biking at the ripe old age of 75. Sure, he’s pulled a few muscles…but, only a few!
I also encourage my clients to examine their spiritual beliefs about death. You may be a Buddhist now, but do childhood religious values still haunt you? What are your images of God, the divine, your Higher Self? Does your image from childhood need to be updated?
You may want to consider some kind of contemplative practice: meditation, prayer or whatever fits. This can be a real refuge when the challenges of aging appear, giving you a connection to something beyond your body, house, car and occupation.
Growing older is about living in constant fear of change and loss; becoming a Wise Elder is about living in a state of constant growth and expansion. Whether you’re forty or ninety, the choice is yours.