The other day at the YMCA, I gave the magazines a cursory glance, grabbed one that looked interesting, and hopped onto an elliptical machine. I was well into my warm-up before I realized that my workout reading material was a magazine for women ages 40 and beyond. By this time, most of the ellipticals were full. Competition for machines can be fierce at the Y, and I didn’t want to interrupt my workout and potentially lose my spot just to get a 3-month-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens or Cooking Light. Even thought I’m still some distance from 40, I thought the magazine could be interesting. Our culture tells women that there are only three valuable things about us: looks, youth, and health. What does the world have to say to women who are losing these things?
I guess I should have known. Nearly every article was about one of three things: how to look prettier, younger, and healthier. It covered a vast array of topics, from disguising wrinkles or age spots, to highlighting away the grays, to fitting back into your high school jeans. While masquerading under the guise of “female empowerment,” and “celebrating your time of life,” it was in reality the same message pumped through the media to women everywhere: your looks are not only all you have, but all you are. Hold onto them for dear life.
I know why the secular world pursues eternal youth; that’s easy. They’re afraid of death. Every minute inches us forward toward that great unknown, and those darned dreams that may come when we shuffle off that mortal coil are enough to stop us cold and then send us running the other way. Any reminders of life’s transience are swiftly dyed, plucked, filled with collagen, or surgically altered.
A few weeks ago, I saw an extreme example of physical alteration. I was sipping chai in a coffee shop downtown as I watched a couple cross the street in front of me. The man– gray-haired, wrinkled, and balding– looked to be in his 60’s and was wearing an expensive-looking suit. The woman looked about 25 years younger. She was stuffed into a short, ruched black satin dress and wore black stilettos. Elaborate extensions allowed her honey blonde hair to fall to her waist. Her nose was small and pinched in a very plastic-surgical way, her forehead was motionless, and her skin looked like it had been stretched taut, like a heavily painted canvas across a frame. It was her hands that gave her away. They were the hands of a graceful older woman–lined, veined, spotted. They were the most beautiful thing about her. Shocked, I realized that I had been wrong about her age. If I read her hands correctly, she was probably about the same age as her husband– late fifties or early sixties. It was staggering to think of the enormous amounts of time, money, and energy that this woman had put into erasing the effects of age. I wondered what she would look like without all the extensions, makeup, and surgery. Underneath it all, she was probably beautiful.
So what are we as Christians doing to combat gerontophobia? Because for us, aging means getting closer to a joyful eternity spent in sweet communion with Christ. It means proximity to an existence that is free of pain, worry, fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration. If our anti-aging culture has grown out of a fear of death, then we who do not fear death should not buy into a culture that results from this fear…right? And then there’s everything the Bible has to say about growing old. Verses like “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life,” (Proverbs 16:31) suggest that aging is something to be prized and treasured, not something of which we should be ashamed.
Yet I find that attitude toward age is no different among Christians than non-Christians. We’re embarrassed about our age, we moan and groan with each birthday, we hide our wrinkles and grays as best we can. As I edge closer to thirty, I find myself automatically–almost compulsorily–repeating our culture’s anti-aging rhetoric. I screamed the first time I found a gray eyebrow hair. Unfortunately, my husband was driving at the time, so my life almost came to an end (not because he almost crashed the car, but because he about killed me for scaring him when he was driving). This was the first birthday I’ve ever had when I was truly loath to tell people my age. Which, by the way, is 27.
We have to commit to a radically different approach. We ought to greet later life with a serenity and grace that astonishes the youth-obsessed world around us. I know that it’s difficult, and I know that I don’t have much room to talk while I’m still relatively young. But what better testimony could there be to the “hope which lies within us” than to greet the approach of death, the arch-nemesis of mankind, with the same savoir-faire that Donne had when he penned the immortal words, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”