Artspeak: Aging Gracefully

irma photocollage 2I am blessed with my mother’s skin.

People often stop me to compliment me on how soft and smooth my skin looks. When asked how I keep it that way, I can only smile and say “good genes.”

Having recently celebrated a birthday, I am increasingly aware of the aging process. It takes its toll, ultimately, on all of us. I have a younger brother, who died too early – in his 50s, of complications from obesity. Another friend died in her early 60s of breast cancer and another in his 60s of complications from diabetes and hypertension. Others have lived a relatively long life and died in their 80s like my mom. Hers was a quiet death with peace and grace. Her body simply started to shut down, and we had decided beforehand to take no “extraordinary measures” – no tubes, no resuscitation, no needles in her thin arms. It was the most difficult decision to make ahead of time, but I’m glad my siblings and I agreed upon this course of action. Mom left us gracefully, and with dignity. The death of friends and family are all signposts and gentle reminders of our own impending mortality. Human beings are a species with a biological time clock built in.

We are born to die.

But in American culture, unlike many around the world, we don’t celebrate or value aging. What must life have been like for Japan’s oldest living person, Jiroeman Kimura who died last year at age 116? And who doesn’t remember the spunky Delany sisters who became celebrities at age 100-plus? Their key to living a long and positive life was “serenity” and not bowing to the stress of racism.

The formulas to growing old gracefully can vary cross-culturally. Some cultures favor diet, exercise, activity, alcohol or no alcohol, a stress-free environment and more. According to National Geographic aging specialist, Dan Buettner, there are “blue zones” in the world where people tend to live longer. His research attributes longevity in these geographical spaces to not avoiding hardship and eating more nuts. Ironically, as Americans age, we are encouraged to take it easy, and avoid stress. We may need to reconsider if such recommendations, based on bio-western medicine, are the best solution. Inactivity and taking life easy may actually accelerate the aging process.

We must also pay attention to the American culture’s obsession with youth. We are inundated with advertisements that encourage us to look younger, feel younger, etc. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against being young, except I’ve been there and done that. I have no desire to return to the days of my youth. I do not wish to reclaim the long black locks of hair that I once flaunted. Instead, I revel in my short, silver bob. It takes guts to wear gray hair these days. We receive an average of three to four messages every few hours or less telling us to dye our hair, change our bodies, and do whatever it takes to look younger. Whatever happened to honoring elders? Why aren’t there more Kimuras’ or Delany sisters’ in the world? Somewhere along the path to technological progress, American culture seems to have lost sight of the wisdom that comes with aging.

The advent of social media has made everyone an instant advice columnist, and because of the “Google” phenomenon, today’s youth think they already know everything before they’ve ever experienced it. And while it may be true that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, it is also true that time is wasted on the young. Reading is not experience. And, surfing Wikipedia and being able to Google a topic does not an expert make.

Technology, with its easy and instantaneous access to information, has created a false sense of intellectual security among today’s youth (and some adults as well). Having drank the Kool-Aid of web surfing, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and accepted the advice of television reality stars whose only claim to fame are looks, butts and bad behavior, many people today actually believe they are knowledge experts. You can’t tell them “nuttin’.” Seduced by the immediacy of the web, reality television shows (that all should carry the warning of “don’t try this at home”), YouTube fame and Facebook exposés (no you didn’t just post your dirty laundry on Facebook?), people caught up in the tech blitz fail to realize that the baptism of fire called experience or the proverbial school of hard knocks are the best sources of information, and the most meaningful way to learn.

Those enamored with being plugged in all the time may need a bit of “tech detox.” They might wish to borrow a page from Jack Honore’s book “In Praise of Slowness,” and take off the Spock-like Bluetooth ear pieces long enough to smell the air, flowers, and hold a face-to-face conversation. I am not anti-technology, but I recognize that the technology is creating social distance. Many people today prefer a computer screen to human contact. Today’s youth have atrophied communications muscles. They can’t sustain a conversation, are uncomfortable looking people in the face and speaking directly, and definitely conflict adverse. Instead, they have important conversations by texting, even if they are sitting right across from the person to whom they are sending the messages. Now what’s wrong with that picture? Technology doesn’t teach us to be compassionate or to have empathy. If we lose those qualities, ultimately we fail to be human.

Aging, gracefully, or not, brings us one step closer to the realities of our own eventual mortality. And, no amount of knee replacements, artery reconstructions, plastic surgery, heart and/or liver transplants, or even mega-doses of pharmaceuticals can stop the onset of death. It comes at the end of living. Not even a return to natural foods can postpone the inevitable. Humans are not immortals. We are born so that we may ultimately die and make space for the next generation. If we have led full, responsible, and contributing lives, then we will have crafted a legacy along our journey through life. And, while we may not pass this way again, the world will know that we were once here. The books we write, the people we teach, the work we do are all testimonials to the fact that we once existed.

I am not morbid, but simply a realist. Death is a fact of being human. I don’t want to live forever. Nor do I wish to exit as an assemblage of artificial parts and transplants designed to fool me into thinking that I’m still young.

My heart is young and I can still salsa dance with the best of them – though not as fast or as long. Be that as it may, I relish my gray hair, give thanks for a body that still works (for the most part) on its own, take time to reflect on past loves, cherish the memories of family and friends who’ve passed on to join the ancestors, and face each new day as if it were a gift. And, through it all, I age gracefully and am learning to live life with grace.

(c ) 2014 McClaurin Solutions

Irma McClaurin is an anthropologist, consultant, writer and Culture and Education Editor for Insight News. She is a senior Faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute, U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The opinions expressed are entirely her own.

April 23, 2014
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