Ways to Love Growing Older
How old are you?” asked the elderly woman I had just met. I took a deep breath and told her I was 47. She clapped her hands and said, “So old! But I’m much older than you.” She looked at me proudly. “I’m 78 and my husband will soon be 80.” I live in the U.S. where questions about a woman’s age are not only considered impolite, but in some circles downright taboo. But I wasn’t in the U.S.
Lessons from China
I had come to China to teach English, and I realized there’s a lot to be learned from a culture where old age, rather than youth is revered. One day, during my last year in China, we had a class discussion about cultural dos and don’ts. I mentioned that in America people, especially women, often don’t appreciate being asked their age. After class, one of my students, Li Juan, a beautiful young woman just finishing up her degree at Hainan University, asked me why. I tried to explain how youth and beauty is so valued where I come from, but when the words came out, they sounded shallow. Li Juan couldn’t comprehend. “I’m looking forward to getting older,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to grow old and gain all that wisdom.”
Embracing the Aging Process
That day I spent a lot of time talking with Li Juan, and much of her advice I took to heart. Her wisdom and that of other wise and powerful women I met on Hainan Island have stayed with me and have guided me over the years. I’ve since passed the 50 mark and am inching my way toward sixty, an age that once sounded impossibly old to me. But China has helped me accept aging as a natural process, one that should be embraced rather than feared. These are some of the most valuable insights I gleaned while living in China.
Exercise Outside no Matter the Weather
It’s a cliché with some truth to it that everyone in China practices tai chi. Certainly there are many people who wouldn’t know “repulse the monkey” from “jade lady picks up needle at the bottom of the ocean,” but the places I lived and visited, it seemed like people spent a lot more time doing exercise outdoors.
In the mornings parks filled with large groups practicing the standard 24-movement tai chi. Sometimes they included beautiful red silk fans. At night parking lots were converted to impromptu dance venues where people of all ages practiced folk dances while the boom box played. I believe it’s important to move and to move outdoors whenever possible.
Age does not Necessarily Equal Wisdom
We need to keep growing and learning no matter what our age. My children and my students have been some of my greatest teachers. It’s unfortunate when someone believes that just because they are older they know more. Wisdom comes from an open mind, insatiable curiosity about the world and a genuine love to motivate life. Years have nothing to do with it.
But don’t be Afraid to Share Your Experiences
While age might not equate wisdom, the more years you have, the more worldly experience you probably have as well. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences. Li Juan told me, “I’ll be able to give younger girls advice and share what I’ve learned with them.” Share is the keyword here.
When I was in my mid-50s I finally began to open up and share about the abuse I had experienced as a young girl. The experience was profound in terms of my own healing, but also because of the number of men and women who wrote to tell me my story had helped them not feel so alone as they worked through their own process of healing from traumatic childhood incidents. Your story can help others. Don’t be afraid to share it.
Embrace Your Invisibility
We’ve probably all heard how women, and men too, once they reach a certain age become “invisible.” What this seems to mainly mean is they are no longer looked at as sex objects. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. I admit, the first time I realized the guy filling up his tank at the gas station wasn’t ogling me but the much younger woman at the pump beside me, I felt a tinge of jealousy. But just a tinge. And just for a moment,
Many younger women have to spend way too much time shielding themselves from everything from unwanted cat calls and whistles on the street to actual groping. Invisibility can be liberating. This is the time to let your real qualities shine.
Express Your True Style
The year I turned 50 and moved back to the U.S. I let my hair, which had begun turning silver in my twenties, go natural. But that doesn’t mean I’m an advocate of gray hair. If I wanted to dye it purple, put a ring through my nose and wear orange boots that would be okay too. By the time we reach the age of invisibility we can dress how we want based on comfort and fun rather than the latest fashion.
It’s Okay to Feel a Little Sad Sometimes
Aging is bittersweet. Loss is part of it. It’s also a time for reflection and honesty. I spent much of my life longing for and maybe fantasizing about a family I never had. Today my family includes my children, but also close friends and animals. I’ve chosen my family and they’ve chosen me based on real heart connections rather than blood ties. Other more substantial changes can come from aging as well. You’ve probably made enough mistakes that you’re not so quick to judge others for theirs.
You make more conscious choices rather than react to everything around you. Sometimes those choices may be to simply not engage in exchanges that don’t seem constructive or interesting. You try to put more energy into what’s right with the world, instead of what’s wrong.Today when I look in the mirror and see a head of full of gray hair and lines around my eyes, especially the ones I cherish most — my laugh lines, I tell myself I’ve earned every one of them.