Attitudes Toward Aging Part II

When I worked for an organization serving older adults in Marin County, I sometimes had speaking engagements.  I was then, as now, a student of Buddhism.  I often opened the topic of attitudes toward aging by telling a story from the life of Buddha:  Buddha was born, as we know, a prince, in Northern India.  While Buddha’s mother was pregnant, there was a prophesy going around that the baby would be either a great king or a great spiritual teacher.  Naturally his father wanted him to be king.  In order to assure this, the king did everything possible to make the young prince feel content in his station.  Siddhartha was showered with the best of everything:  food, entertainment, companions.  He was never allowed outside the palace walls.  Everything was brought to him.

As the prince grew older, he became restless, as young men often do.  He wanted to see more of the world.  He had a close relationship with his charioteer, who agreed to take him beyond the palace gates.  Wearing a disguise, Buddha rode out into the city that essentially belonged to him, and saw it for the first time.

If you have been to India, you know that the city streets are very different from a beautiful, tranquil garden.  Some people were well dressed, others were ragged.  People pushed and shoved, offered things for sale, washed themselves and their clothing at a public well, and so on.  Prince Siddhartha was a bit taken aback and a little excited.  He urged his charioteer to drive on.  After awhile, they passed a man walking slowly with a cane.  The man’s hair and beard were snow white.  “Why is the man so slow?”  Buddha asked his driver.

“That man is old,”  answered the charioteer. “If you live a long life, that is what happens.”  Soon they passed a man being carried on a stretcher.  A woman walked along side, wiping his brow.   The man was very thin and pale.

“What is wrong with that man?” Buddha asked his servant.

“That man is sick,” the charioteer replied.  Buddha had never seen sickness.  He was upset to see such suffering.  Less excited and a bit troubled, he told the driver to go on.  Soon another man was carried by on a stretcher, but this time the man’s face was covered as well.  Instead of walking along side, the wife followed the stretcher, weeping.

“What’s wrong with that man, is he also sick?” asked  Buddha.

“Sire, that man is dead,” replied the charioteer sadly.  “Sooner or later, we all must die; kings or beggars, rich or poor, foreigner and citizen alike.  Everyone who is born eventually dies.”

The Buddha was quite troubled by now.  All this had been kept from him.  “My parents – will they also die?”

“Yes, and when your father dies you will be king.”

“And, I, myself…  I will die?”

“Yes.”

Siddhartha told his driver to return to the palace.  His mind and heart were troubled.  So this was life.  Poverty and struggle, old age, sickness and death.  Life was far different from the perfumed garden in which he had been kept ignorant of the inevitable truth.  Just outside the palace gate, they passed another man.  Thin and white haired, he looked neither sick nor troubled.  He sat on a mat, cross-legged, with downcast eyes.  “What is that man?”  Asked the prince.

“He is a saddhu, a meditator and spiritual seeker,” replied the charioteer.  Prince Siddhartha could see that the meditator was not troubled by the conditions of life, while he, a powerful prince, had no inner peace.   He resolved to leave the palace and become a spiritual seeker.

Today, we in the West live in a situation similar to Buddha’s life as a prince.  We are distracted by food and entertainment.  We normally keep ourselves quite sheltered from old age, death, and serious illness to the extent that these are relegated to specific institutions.  Sick people are in hospitals.  We might visit, but then we go home and leave it to the nurses to bathe, feed, and care for them.  Older people live in seperate communities, and death is swept under the rug.  Just as Buddha’s father tried to do, we live in the illusion that old age and death will never come.  The cost of this denial is that  we are unprepared when old age does come.  We face a difficult adjustment.

Also, like the young Buddha, being unaware of the suffering in life and this life’s inevitable end, we fail to find meaning.  It was the awareness of suffering that led Buddha to his search, and its conclusion.  The answer he later found was that the suffering of life can and does have an end.  This end is achievable by all. The shift that ends suffering is within ourselves, not in the external world. There was no way he could have realized enlightenment by staying inside the palace gates.  Pure awareness can not arise from self deception.

Attitudes Toward Aging

Getting older, it has been said, is not so bad considering the alternative.  Many people would not choose to age if there were no such consequence; yet if the only alternative were to have to retain the same mindset as we had when young, many people would still prefer to age.  Several of my friends who gathered in the clubhouse today said that they would not want to be seventeen or twenty-five again.  Adolescence and young adulthood certainly have their angst.  I suspect that if we really thought about it, we may not want to be thirty-five or forty again, either.  Once adulthood is in full swing, the angst has gone considerably underground, but it is still there.  We are at the top of our game, but to stay there, we can’t stop running.

With age, we stop running.  The level of true self-worth goes up, the false ego softens.  This happens naturally and sometimes with a sigh of relief.  Often the shift follows a series of losses.  I mentioned in my last post that recent research tells us old people are overall happier than younger people.  If youth and attractiveness were really as important as the imagery everywhere present in our culture suggests, this wouldn’t make sense.  In fact, many of our attitudes toward aging, and death, for that matter, reflect a huge shadow projection of our youth-oriented culture.

Other cultures don’t necessarily share our bias against aging.  When I was traveling in Asia, One of the first questions people asked to strike up conversation if riding next to me on the bus or at a restaurant was, “How old are you?”  Although I had heard about this, and even though I prided myself on having a positive view of aging, I was automatically taken aback by this questions.  Cultural conditioning has taught me that this is an impolite question.  You don’t ask a lady her age!

Instead, we might ask someone “What do you do for a living?”  How polite is that, when you think about it?  It’s almost like asking someone how much money they have, since we all have some idea what various professions earn.  People in Asia rarely ask that question.  Of course, in Asia, being older is nothing to be ashamed about, just the opposite:  It is a matter of pride.  One has that much more living experience, greater wisdom, and the strength to survive.  It is as if with every passing year one has earned a higher degree in the University of Life.

A man in Jamaica once said to me, “Life is full of little holes.”  So it is.  At each age, something is less than satisfactory.  Childhood, supposedly carefree, is burdened by a lack of self-determination.  Adulthood is burdened by the responsibilities of parenthood and making a living.  The retirement years, while relieved of some mundane responsibilities, is burdened with a loss of physical strength.  On the other hand, life is an amazing journey and filled with delight at every age and stage.  People who have lived longer have had more opportunity to become the best we can be.  It is something to be proud about and something deserving the honor and respect of others.

When I refer to myself as old, people immediately respond, “You’re not old.”  They mean, I guess, that it’s not yet time to give it all up and sit quietly in my rocking chair.  But when is it ever time for that?  When I say I’m old, what people should say is, “Congratulations!  You made it!”  Hopefully I’ll live to be older, but let’s face it, I may not.  They don’t give you social security and medicare because you’re not old.  I’ve survived childhood.  I’ve survived youth.  I’ve survived intoxicating substances.  I’ve survived parenthood.  I’ve survived uninspiring jobs and cranky bosses.  I’ve survived taxes.  I’ve survived travel.  I’ve survived graduate school.  I’ve survived marriage.  I’ve survived crossing city streets numerous times.  Aging is not a bad thing.  It’s a great achievement.

Sagging Flesh

Our culture is so youth oriented that we focus on how old we look much more than how old we feel.  Suppose I look twenty years younger than my actual age, but I can’t get up out of my chair and on to the dance floor with the “other”  forty-year olds?  Is that better than grey hair, wrinkles, and awesome moves?  I think that, once again, men have an advantage here.  A guy can have some character in his face, greying temples, and still be damned sexy, especially if he has got the moves.  Women feel compelled to nip and tuck, Botox and dye, spend millions on cosmetics that purport to do all kinds of things.  We can be so caught up in artifice that we forget about the real things:  Enough sleep, appropriate exercise, good food.  Happiness.

I hope my male readers will forgive me a few words to the ladies:  A few days ago, I was talking with a couple of my “girl” friends and one woman complained about her sagging boobs.  “They never were like that!”  She insisted.  “They were gorgeous and perky!” Another woman said that our friend was just wearing the wrong size bra, a fact I could easily confirm for myself since the bra was visible through our friend’s white blouse.  I also wore the wrong size most of my life and read an article only a few years ago that explained bra sizing.  Basically, if the back of the bra climbs up your back, the bra is too large.  This refers to the diameter of your chest directly under your breasts.  It does not signify the extent of your endowment.  That’s the  cup size.  When you get the right size bra, you will probably have to go up at least one cup size.  For example, if you have been wearing 36C, you might change to 34D.  You will be surprised how much more comfortable, and how much better supported, you will feel.

Pendulous breasts, which no doubt are one of the disappointments of aging for many women, has not been an adjustment for me.  Mine were always that way.  As a teenager, it was a major problem in my insecure teenaged mind.  My boobs hung there on my chest like overripe mangoes.  They didn’t pop up perkily like posies.  The search for the best, most supportive bra took up a lot of attention much of my youth and my adult life.  Of course, I was buying the wrong size.  But I bought expensive bras with lots of wires for support.  The wires would eventually come out of their casing and poke me under the arm just when I was making a presentation in class.  It was something I suffered with quietly, like heavy menstrual periods.  (Bear with me, guys, I’m almost through)  The poking wires, blood stained panties, and twisted pantyhose were indignities to suffer in silence.  Now it’s the indignities of getting older:  being unable to read signs and menus without digging for my glasses, being unable to run upstairs, being wary of driving at night or traveling alone, being essentially invisible .

Though they may be at some advantage, men suffer the same indignities.  My former husband used to get so frustrated with his reading glasses, he’d throw them across the room.  The choices are rarely advantageous, it’s the lesser of two evils:  bifocals or changing glasses for different tasks.  I actually stopped reading for pleasure for a while.  Reading was not pleasurable when I had to go find glasses and get used to the feeling of them on my face.  Later on, I got acclimated and started reading again.  Recently, I’ve noticed my night vision is not as good as it once was.  It becomes more difficult to sit in one spot for a long time, especially a spot without a cushion.  One stands up and wobbles about for a moment, feeling stiff.

In spite of all this, recent studies suggest that older folks are generally happier than young people.  Now that’s interesting.  We have lost many things – people, possessions, professional identities, health and strength.  We have less time on the planet to anticipate and many things behind us.  For these reasons and more, the instances of depression among older people is high, yet overall we are happier.  Perhaps it is the fact of the losses in itself  that brings about the happiness.  We relax about things.  We realize we aren’t our bodies, our houses, our cars, or our professional identities.  How could we be?  They are gone and we are still here.  Thank goodness for that.