The Beauty of Aging



The Japanese have a word for it. Shibui. The beauty of aging.
In Western culture, aging is seen as physical dementia, a loss of beauty and relevance. We're compared to people half our age and, because the contrast is glaring, we're seen as damaged. There's an interaction during conversation that occurs when contemporaries speak; It includes a give-and-take that confirms we're being heard. As we age, that interaction shifts and we sense we're being tolerated. We see our wrinkles and other body changes as unacceptable and spend thousands trying to eliminate the evidence of aging. There's another, more serious side-effect to aging in Western culture: chronic depression. Being unable to shake the feeling that we're no longer wanted or needed, that our lives have no value to the next generation, that we're interlopers in our families' lives, and that the longing we have to be included, loved, And valued will never be satisfied.
The beauty of aging. It's only because of our culture that those words seem to remain a nice thought without truth. In old European cultures, families maintain independence while nurturing inter-dependence among generations. The aging parents live on the ground floor, the adult children live above with their own new family. Both adult children work and the grandparents raise the grandchildren. All three generations share meals and daily activities with a fluid, natural interaction that gives everyone a deeper understanding of what each can contribute. Compare this to how we deal with aging in the West. Here, younger people are often resentful when they have to deal with their aging parents. They hope their parents are financially independent so they will not have to provide care. And, when care is necessary, they consider it a burden and place the parent in facilities that diminish any possibility that their parent's life will continue to have relevance. Much of the stress felt by families can be directly connected to these decisions; How much simpler life would be if we could adopt the European model and cherish the life experiences of our aging families.

Perhaps because the cultures are so ancient, it's in the Asian countries that one finds the highest respect for age. There, people are seen as having continuity; The teachings given while young have to be nurtured and practiced through life. It's only when a person attains an advanced age that he's actually wise and capable of advising with any degree of certainty. Younger people bow to the elder. The hardships and lessons learned in a difficult life are seen as valuable; They provide the basis for words of wisdom that may keep the youngger person from needing to suffer. The Chinese call this shih: an elegant, insightful kind of knowledge.
My lover and I are both over fifty. We've discussed the cultural changes that have created a broad division in life perceptions among generations. It's unusual to find people in our phase of life who carry an I-Pod or Blackberry; We prefer to have conversations one-at-a-time instead of engaging in three conversations at once by using all the various means of communication available today. We're painfully aware of the way in which we've accepted now compared to how it was ten or fifteen years ago; We're rarely considered for opportunities that used to be handed to us. Since we're both vital, intelligent, and energetic, we want to contribute significantly to our world and find that we have to generate our own capabilities now rather than seeking out those already exist. What we sense and what we're experiencing are extremely common; Because opening a discussion about aging is not sexy or part of pop-culture, it remains in the shadows. I believe that the deep problems of our society can be minimized significantly by encouraging a shift in the perception of age. We need to begin seeing older people as part of the natural continuity, as having wisdom that will be lost if not captured, as being great receptacles of history with observations that can serve the future. Aging does not have to be discouraging or depressing; It can be a lovely phase of life that provides a calmness and emotional security not possible when we're younger.

The Japanese have another phrase that gives insight to what aging can provide: ygen: an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words. It is this that I aspire to feel as I continue the life process.

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