WHAT AM I APOLOGIZING FOR AND TO WHOM EXACTLY, AM I APOLOGIZING?
Do we really feel like we must apologize for getting older, for having our bodies change in ways we didn’t ask for, and for how we feel badly when we compare ourselves with younger people?
We should not have to apologize for getting older. Yet we find ourselves uncomfortable and yes, apologetic, for aging. Obviously we can’t help the inevitability that we will age – it’s not our fault! What we can help is our attitude and our perspective towards this biological process that takes an emotional toll. Typically when we think about ourselves aging we feel queasy, fearful of losing our looks, vitality and minds, and scared of the uncertainty ahead. Will I age gracefully, or will I turn into a crotchety old bag lady? Will I be a burden to my children and an embarrassment to society?
The answer to that question lies partially in the context of culture. Western cultures value youth, independence and individualism and there is shaming around aging and death. We worry that we are seen to take jobs and resources away from the more deserving young. That’s assuming we can still work. Once we stop working there is an increased risk of criticism. As Jared Diamond, a professor at UCLA, points out that America’s high value of work ethic means that “if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places on you,” and that our “cult of youth” places an emphasis on independence and self-reliance.
Let’s be clear we’re talking about late middle age, not about the end of life phase plagued by Alzheimer’s, permanent immobility after breaking a hip or suffering from severe disease. That phase is still mercifully down the road from this late middle age/early older age. We’re just talking about accepting the fact that you don’t turn heads when you walk down the street anymore, which has the affect of making you feel invisible. When the guy at the burrito place calls you Senorita instead of Senora and you feel flattered you know you’ve entered this phase.
How do I look?
It’s especially obvious when you consider society’s views on physical appearance and standards of beauty, of which we’re all too well aware. It’s rare to find a movie featuring a love story about older people, as if they are not attractive enough to deserve to experience love. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons there were 15.6 million cosmetic procedures performed in 2020, which demonstrates an increase of 22% for cosmetic surgical procedures since 2000. Clearly we’re trying to fight aging (2% of the recipients were 70+ years old) and not letting nature take its course.
We all make choices. Personally, I’m not choosing cosmetic surgery even though I see wrinkles in the mirror (when I’m wearing my contacts). When I read Nora Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” I was too young to think it applied to me. That has certainly changed, although I always thought I’d be fine growing older and not be so vain to mind the wrinkles. But honestly it’s a struggle on a daily basis. I remember when I was a little girl my grandmother told me she’d look in the mirror and was confused by the image she saw because it didn’t match how she felt, which was 29 years old. Truer words were never spoken! Notably, she also had brown hair from a box until she died at 97 years old and I’m totally on board with following her example. Some of my worst dreams at night involve my hair going totally gray…
How old are you really?
The age you feel may not align with your chronological age, as supported by David Robinson in his article on bbc.com entitled “The age you feel means more than your actual birthdate”. He claims that scientists are increasingly interested in your ‘subjective age’ because it may explain why some people flourish and some fade. My grandmother would have wholeheartedly approved of this reasoning, as do I. He goes on to say that feeling younger than your years also seems to come with a lower risk of depression and greater mental wellbeing. Your subjective age is a better predication than what’s on your birth certificate. I find this idea both comforting and inspiring, although I may just be creating the illusion that I can deny time. Either way, positive thinking can only help, right?
The Antidote for Apologies
The best antidote to feeling apologetic and embarrassed is to feel proud. We can all feel proud of what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve learned, what we’ve gotten better at over the years, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I am a more confident and joyful cook than I used to be, I’ve read many books (and I even retain some specific knowledge) and I’ve improved my skills at making successful travel plans. But what has really improved by living longer? Actually it’s the important things, like being able to make connections to people, by being a more sensitive listener and having the confidence that I can learn new things (I’m especially proud of learning new technical things!). Wisdom is gained by paying attention and noticing what happens in the world outside our self-centered minds. Being stuck in your own head and not considering other ways to look at life will make you feel old and out of date, even if it is familiar and comfortable to do so. If you can widen your perspective by traveling, by talking to new people or by placing yourself in new situations you will never stagnate.
By the time we are starting to feel apologetic for being older we have undoubtedly overcome many challenges in our lives and we can use this knowledge to flip that old familiar feeling around. Everyone has examples of tough situations they’ve gotten through because they somehow mastered the challenge or circumstances worked in their favor. Looking back on it one could say it was character building. My own example is remembering that everything scary or hard I face now is in English, since I spent time abroad and had to function successfully in non-native languages. Whatever the situation is, at least I can cope in my native language (although I don’t get the extra points for doing it in another language).
So really, what are we apologizing for? And to whom are we apologizing exactly? Are we embarrassed for being humans who aren’t immortal, for having bodies that change with time, for experiencing our own versions of life that differ from everyone else’s life experience? That doesn’t sound so insurmountable to me and I encourage you think about it this way the next time you find yourself automatically feeling apologetic. Don’t be sorry!