Recently I spoke with a friend who was distressed about getting older. The belief at the heart of the issue was what it often is—something to the effect that as we get older, we grow less and less attractive. Her comely years, in her view, were far behind her. Now, at 50, she was all but convinced that she was too old to be considered beautiful. And with each passing year, she felt not only less attractive but also less alive.
I can sympathize. When I turned 40, I felt old overnight—old, mind you, not just older. The idea that I was in any sense young suddenly was no longer credible. Looking back, I have to smile at that reaction, at how young 40 looks from where I stand now, and the unwitting readiness to be intimidated by time's advancing markers. With each birthday, after all, are we not as old as we have ever been, at least to our recollecting? Furthermore, something in us, as though with a will of its own, scrawls slash marks on the wall, bundling them in tens as a man might do in prison to keep track of the passing weeks and months till his release—or execution. Does a boy turning 10 feel the power of this any less than a senior turning 90?
And yet, even while we “keep time” in this way, counting the passing years and watching the face in the glass aging before our eyes, something in us knows that we are as timeless as the seasons, perennial—the changeless and inscrutable “I am” that lives at the center of each of us in a place that time can’t touch. Is this sense of self not the same today as it was when we were children? This self knows only the living present, and how old is now? With what irony that nucleus of identity must regard our preoccupation with the calendar through which we allow time to tyrannize us, and steal from us the only time we ever really have—the moment before us, a mysterious wellspring that rises up between a recollected past and projected future that draw their seeming authority from our own, creative imagination.
From a philosophical perspective, it comes down, as it does so often, to a matter of belief. The number is what it is, of course, but whether we are old, whether we are attractive, whether aging adds to who we are or subtracts from it, this is up to us. Deepak Chopra tells us that our real age is an average of three numbers: our chronological age, our physiological age, and how old we feel. Seth/Roberts states that we are free at any moment on the time line to tap the power of our youth or the wisdom we believe we may have as elders. The point is not to believe that we are 40 if we are 60, but to realize that “old” and “young” are relative terms whose meaning continues to change as the years pass, and that there is a far greater fluidity here than we may have assumed. If we believe that beauty and attractiveness are no longer available to us, then our belief makes it so, and there is no doubt that the psychic structures that live in the depths of us have an effect on how we look, our vitality and passion for living, and how we come across to others. The question, “How old are you?” then, is not asking for the number of our last birthday, but for a moment of candid self-assessment, a look in the mirror not at our physical reflection but at the beliefs we have about who we are, and how much we have turned the authority of that determination over to the calendar. It seems reasonable to expect that those individuals who seem to grow in beauty as they age, who each year become more attractive until they are fairly luminous, are those who are open to beauty, who have not disqualified themselves from its estate. When we stop measuring beauty solely according to the standards of that particular variation that belongs uniquely to youth, when we stop allowing the looking glass to dictate our beliefs, we find we're free to discover the beauty that ever accompanies those who believe in and look for beauty without consulting the mirror.
Philip Golabuk founded and directs PhilosophyCenter, an online resource providing philosophical counseling services and the Fate Project which offers a simple, five-point, self-study program for emotional and spiritual well-being based on the ancient Greek view.