Many people find a fascination with youth, beauty and the advancement of old age. As we all know looks fade and with age, there is another source
of beauty despite the wrinkles and apparent signs of aging that we all must face in what has been referred to as “the croning years.” In Western culture, there is so much emphasis on external beauty that women and men feel compelled to find surgical solutions, creams, botox, liposuction and any method possible to slow down the aging process and retain the appearance of youth. For hundreds of years we in the West have been taught to deny ourselves. “Mind over Matter” is a time-honored maxim that has merit in treating illness, but the danger is that true body wisdom or the messages we receive about our bodies must be ignored or denied. Every magazine gives us methods of ridding ourselves of undesirable pounds and the newest trends and fads for reversing the aging process. One woman born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States expressed her pain about her anorexic daughter who did not feel accepted or physically attractive unless she was frightfully thin. Her mom asked, what happened to the idea of “aging gracefully?” She felt that her elderly mother was more beautiful with age and the wrinkles on her aging face showed a wisdom and inner beauty that was absent in youth. Observing her daughter’s fierce compulsion to stop the clock and pursue anything that would mask the aging process was very painful to her mother, an immigrant to the United States who had enjoyed values that helped her deal with aging and the passage of time. She told me that the term “immigrant grief” described her inability to teach her daughter who was in her mid thirties that she was more beautiful now than ever before. Many women and men can not face aging and the general result is that the body and its functions have been relegated to the shadow side of life;regarded as dark and possibly evil. As Jung points out, “The body is a most doubtful friend because it produces things we do not like;there are too many things about the body which cannot be mentioned. The body is very often the personification of the shadow of the ego. Sometimes it forms the skeleton in the cupboard, and everybody naturally wants to get rid of such a thing.” We need our animal selves, our bone, muscle, and instinct-laden physicality to survive on this planet. One wonders why we as a culture have become so anti-body, as our very flesh were a disease against which we must wage war. Jung hoped that “we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body is the outer manifestation of the living spirit.”
For centuries many terrible cures attempted to cleanse the collective psyche or the ancient goddess worship that honored the female body as the matrix in which there were no divisions. There are many books that celebrate the return of the Goddess, to cherish the power of the feminine and to accept all the disowned parts of the psyche that lead us to illness and become pathological enough that we are forced to notice. When disowned aspects of ourselves are repressed, fear is projected onto the body in such forms as siren, enchantress, witch, hag and devouring mother. When we face our greatest fears, we also see the glimmering hope of of a new creative life.
When we accept that as we age our bodies are mortal, we can embrace our terrors and our failures and the hope for the celebrations to come, when what we have incubated emerges from the underworld. Legend and myth tell us again and again that transformation is possible. The maiden becomes the queen. The dragon becomes prince or princess. The fool becomes wise. The naive attitudes of youth change and develop. Slowly we become ourselves, free to be the keepers of memory and wisdom. We learn when to be silent and when to speak, what can be shared and what is secret. We learn to honor our bodies even as they begin to fail. We come to a visceral understanding of the cycles of change and our part in them. Ulrich Schaffer writes in his book of poems, Surprised By Light;
“Again and again the miracle takes place
in the amazing transformation
in which the air turns into leaves
and the earth becomes roots,
in which the sun fills the seed to bursting
then lets it break open and sprouts,
New life breaks through
in the transformation of death.
We are sustained by the surprise of the miracle,
by the change of the seasons,
and I am a link in this miraculous chain,
In me the unchangeable also changes,
and I know that I would break
the rhythm of creation
if I did not change
I would be dead to life
even as I continued to live.
I am not yearning for great miracles,
but for the daily change,
the almost imperceptivle rebirth,
the insignificant miracle of growth,
which is greater than all others. "
It is a sad fact that as we approach old age, the deterioration or our bodies
seem loathsome. In fright, we run off into frantic activity, becoming too busy to think or feel as we sink deeper and deeper into a paralyzing depression.
Only rarely do we have the wisdom to honor our changes and allow their development. Most of us, unguided and untaught, flee in fear from the life that precedes our old age and death.
Today in the Western world the human life span is increasing, and as it does, the need grows for a deeper wisdom that can help older persons honor rather than deny the physical and psychological relinquishing that precedes a late blooming. We are explorers of a stage of life that is different than it was for previous generations. The years of coming to age are now a new challenge and like most challenges bring the stresses of relinquishing familiar ways. Going through the changes of this time can be as exciting and as difficult as any outer journey. Those of us now coming to age are pathfinders, hopefully marking a way for others to follow.