Every Wrinkle Tells a Story: Celebrate or Eradicate?

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Faith and Aging. Read other perspectives here.

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.

Does it still seem a tad hyperbolic to label this refusal to acquiesce to aging as "spiritual sickness"?

As I watch my friends age around me, some increasingly unprepared for the inevitable coming stages, desperate to deny the manifest reality, I find it deceitful to label it as anything less. We are incessantly bombarded—from television, magazines, movies, advertising, posters, our communities, our churches—with advice to lie about who we are: to ourselves as well as to others. To pretend that we are something (some age) that we are not. The pressures (financially, emotionally, etc.) to succeed in perpetuating this lie aside, how can it be at all healthy to participate in it?

Perhaps you think that I am still too young to understand just how hard getting older is; that in another ten, twenty years, I will better understand why aging is something to fight as long as possible. But living with a chronic disease for almost twenty years has not only prematurely aged my body visibly (including wrinkles, liver spots, and varicose veins!), it has taught me many of the daily pains and frustrations more typical of friends several decades older. The physical aches and fragilities, the social and sleep-impeding inconveniences, the memory and concentration challenges, and—worst of all—the relinquishment of independence…whether needing others to drive you everywhere, to help you dress, to open a bottle top, or to cut up your food: yes, I know that "getting old" can be very hard in many ways.