Faith and Aging
Every Wrinkle Tells a Story: Celebrate or Eradicate?
I like getting older.
The increasing aches, pains, memory failures—sure, I could do without those. But as for the actual adventure of aging, in and of itself? It's a good one.
Skeptical? Ask anyone who might not have the chance.
I'll be frank: as a pre-teen, few things made my eyes roll more than hearing one of my parents' peers claim that they were "turning twenty-nine again." It just seemed so … well, stupid. Everyone partaking in the verbal exchange knew that it was a lie, yet they nonetheless played into this bizarre adult connivance that there was something unfortunate about a woman being older than twenty-nine (the claimants were never male). So at the age of twelve, I swore that I would openly celebrate every age I had a chance to be—and cheerfully correct anyone who might think me younger than I actually was.
I'd been brainwashed into this perspective by the fantasy writings of George MacDonald (a major influence on C.S. Lewis, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Maurice Sendak, Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, W.H. Auden … traces of his brainwashing appear in their works, too). MacDonald's stories have numerous wise elderly people in them, and particularly admirable old, wise women. One of the recurrent observations in these tales is that the agedness of these women has made them beautiful. Beauty and old age are repeatedly wrapped up together—along with the long term effects of physical labour: cracked, chaffed, and calloused hands are signatures of rugged beauty.
I know I was not the only kid MacDonald succeeded in brainwashing on this topic; I've met others. Others who spurn the sneakily insidious cultural encouragement to pretend to be younger than one really is. Such rebels do support endorsements to keep physically fit, to be childlike in demeanour, and to stay interested in a broad spectrum of culture. What they resist is the inculcation that to actively pretend to be younger than one is, is sensible or admirable, let alone socially responsible; social deviants, they do not wage war on wrinkles and hair color, capitulate comfort for age-defying fashion, or affirm that it is a faux pas to be honest about someone's age.
As said: as a kid, I thought participating in such behaviour was simply stupid.
As a young adult, I thought it was a sell-out to social pressure.
Now—as a forty-seven-year-old—I see it as a spiritual sickness, a systemic contagion that is relentlessly (and very successfully) cultivated for commercial gain. It fits so neatly into the narrative that we are not enough without purchased assistance: for young girls, industry pressures them at every juncture to look older, then suddenly, without pause, the pressure shifts to make every effort to look younger—never to be who they, we, actually are. It's an infection difficult to withstand: at unguarded times I find it catching me out—so deeply insidious it is culturally abnormal to resist.
The Bible corroborates MacDonald's subversion, with declarations such as: "Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life," and "Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding." Nonetheless, Sunday morning service is too often prime time to observe how much more persuasive are the texts of Clairol and Olay. Even when we are moved to celebrate the unique beauty of a creviced, creased, character-filled face by framing it on a wall, displaying it in a coffee book, or sharing it in a Facebook meme, we still put effort, money, angst, into preventing—at much cost—ever looking like that ourselves. Oblivious to the irony.
Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is an independent scholar and international lecturer based in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. An alum of St. Andrew's Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, she writes and lectures primarily on topics related to: George MacDonald and the Inklings; Literature, Art, and Theology; and the transformative power of Story. She is a regular contributor to Artway.eu and the new blog EverydayTheology.life, and hosts the Linlathen Lectures (www.linlathen.com). Links to her academic work can be found at kirstinjeffreyjohnson.com.