Our experience of aging is structured not only in our genes. “Age” or “old” is also in part a social construct, an idea that appears to be universally real but also has been shaped by culture and is different in different cultures. This is not to argue about the biological age limit of the human body at 120 and its decline sometime before that. Certainly, aging and death are our fate, at least for our bodies and our individuality, that is, my Connie-ness.
Rather, I suggest that the meanings we give to this construct — When do you turn old? How does age define who you are? What is age-appropriate dress or behavior? What does it mean that you’re too old to do that? — are rooted in our early and ongoing life experiences and in the gestures, glances, and jokes that we internalize about late life, whether from family, friends, or media. And if we internalize negative messages about “old,” then we reject our current or future selves.
But there is something more beneath familial and cultural messages about late life: the archetype of age. The fairy tales we heard while growing up, which we then read to our children and grandchildren, introduce us to “the wise old man,” “the good witch,” “the magician,” “the sage or mentor.” Recently, the Harry Potter books introduced millions of children to Professor Dumbledore, headmaster, Elder, and adversary of the man who embodies evil. Lord of the Rings brought us Gandalf, and the Star Wars series brought us Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, timeless, wise, memorable figures.
Other cultures throughout history have been aware of this blueprint. In Hinduism, Kali, the divine mother who is imagined as dark-skinned, many-armed, and wearing a necklace of skulls, is the goddess of birth, death, and transformation. She contains the opposites of creation and destruction; they are paired within her, not divided, as they are in the West, weaving time in a mythic cycle, rather than a straight line.
In ancient Greece, the spirit of age was embodied in Geras, a shriveled old man with a cane, who appears on ancient pottery. For the Greeks, the more Geras one acquired, the more virtue and excellence one gained.
The gods of age are often personifications of time and fate: For example, Father Time, an elderly bearded man with wings, carries a scythe, like the Grim Reaper, and an hourglass, to show time fleeting. He reveals the lie of endless life and the truth of mortality.
But today the archetype of age has been reduced to a stereotype, its timeless value and radiant beauty vanished.
Aging and death are always already in the background. They are not under the control of our ego or our mind. How do we relate to these larger forces? Are they in us — or are we in them?
The archetype of age is there from the beginning in every living thing. The tree doesn’t resist when its leaves begin to brown and fall to the soil. But we, on the other hand, are aware of the changing seasons — and cling to the blossoming spring.
Aging is given, decreed, woven into the web of life. It is a moment to moment encounter with forces beyond our control. Millions of healthy cells begin to multiply frantically — cancer. Millions of healthy neurons begin to misfire randomly — dementia. As we connect with these larger forces, as they invade our lives as debilitating illness, chronic pain, loss of capacity, and bottomless grief, we have only one choice — how we relate to our fate.
Consciously or unconsciously, we live in this tension between our ego’s desires for immortality, safety, unconditional love — and this certain fate. What if, in late life, we could surrender to what is at work in our aging: Is the decline of the body an opening for the arising of something else? What does our aging body reveal of our soul? How do we become simply who we are here and now?
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Reinventing Age from the Inside Out.