May you walk in Beauty
An Ancient Navajo Prayer
May the Beauty we love be what we do
Jellaudin Rumi (1250)
To speak of aging and beauty in the same breath might seem to be hopelessly naive. The physical and mental debility of aging leads only to the grave, and it seems a vicious joke that all our dreams and hopes and efforts should end in the disgraceful and ignoble mire of old age. Moreover, in western countries, the cult of youth marginalizes those of us with white hair. We are certainly not a sought after demographic. A recent advertisement for a job at the United Nations warned that those over 58 need not apply. Many universities are looking for excellent young teachers because the image of the old dried out professor reading from his yellow notes is deeply engrained in the collective imagination. Many of us go through our days experiencing new and mystifying pains, being shocked by the person we see in the mirrors and windows we happen to pass, and either being ignored or patronized by the vigorous young people around us who are going about the important business of life. On this far side of Middle Age, I find Robert Frost’s couplet particularly apt: “Oh Lord, if You forgive my little jokes on Thee, I will forgive Thy great big one on me.” We put on a brave face, but in our heart of hearts, we know the terrifying truth that the game is up.
Or is it?
This question lies at the heart of many of the great philosophies and religions around the world. The Buddha, for example, was sequestered in a luxurious palace until his late twenties. Upon venturing forth from his golden prison he was astounded and repulsed by his first glimpse of an old man. Was this his destiny? The thought was so unsettling that the young Siddartha left the comfort of his wife and child. He began his quest for understanding the conundrum that is life itself, and he did not rest until he had found the cause of suffering in the psychological and spiritual attachments that bind most people, young and old, to the illusions of this world.
In the West, the philosophy of Plato was fueled by the enigma of aging. He begins his greatest work, The Republic, with Socrates entering the home of a long-time friend named Cephalus. It has been years since they have seen each other, and Socrates is immediately shaken by the toll time has exacted from his friend. “Now,” says Socrates, “that you have reached an age when your foot, as the poets say, is on the threshold of death, I should like to hear what report you can give and whether you find it a painful time of life.” With this question, Plato opens one of the most comprehensive examinations ever written on the ways in which life can flourish. “Most of our company (of old men),” answers Cephalus, “are very sorry for themselves, looking back with regret to the pleasures of their young days, all the delights connected with love affairs and merry-making. They are vexed at being deprived of what seems to them so important; life was good in those days, they think, and now they have no life at all.” The wisdom of Cephalus, however, seems deeper than that of his friends: “All the troubles (of old age),” he says, “including the complaints about not being respected, have only one cause, and that is not old age, but a man’s character. It you have a contented mind at peace with itself, age is no intolerable burden; without that, Socrates, age and youth will be equally painful.”
What an amazing answer! It is the possession of a contented mind at peace with itself that eases the pain of life at any age, and this inner peace is the product of one’s character. Let us therefore reflect on the notion of character and its relation to aging.
There is a story told about Abraham Lincoln. One day a man visited the President in the White House, and after the man left, Lincoln said to his secretary “I never want to see that man again.” “Why not?” asked the secretary. “Because,” said Lincoln, “I do not like his face.” “But Mr. President,” said the secretary, “a man cannot be held responsible for his face!” “On the contrary,” replied Lincoln, “by the time a man is forty, he has the face he deserves.” Coco Chanel expanded this idea: “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.”
Every day of our lives we are creating our faces, etching into our countenance the joys and sorrows, trusts and fears, anger and kindness that make up the fabric of our lives. The faces of older people tell the story of the trials they have endured, the blessings they have enjoyed, and the characters they have forged in the cauldron of life’s opportunities and challenges.
Clearly we are in the process of creating not only our bodies, but also our souls. Keats once called this world “a vale of soul-making.” In this sense, we do not simply have souls. Rather we fashion our souls as we respond to life’s invitations. Each response is in fact a choice that we make from the vast array of our intellectual and emotional repertoire. Every time we choose a course of action we are in fact choosing ourselves, creating who we are and who we will be. In so doing, we partake of our greatest privilege and responsibility, for in creating ourselves we also create a unique universe, and herein lies the secret of our significance. I am working with an idea beautifully expressed by Hermann Hesse in his Prologue to Demian: “[Each human being] represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature . . . the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as [he or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”
Over time as we etch the contours of our faces we build the mansions of our souls. The choices we make coalesce into the habits of mind, heart, spirit and body that form our character. In fact, the philosopher William James defined the human being as “a bundle of habits.” Now it seems obvious that there is a difference between aging and maturing, between simply getting older and ripening into one’s fullness, and that difference is due in large measure to the habits of character that we create through our daily choices.
The Greek philosophers developed compelling theories of the nature of the habits that constitute our character, and of how they are formed over a lifetime. Plato and Aristotle both taught the simple truth that certain habits of mind and heart (e.g. wisdom and courage) empower us to live life to the fullest, while other habits of thinking, feeling, and acting (e.g. foolishness and cowardice) imprison the soul and insulate it from the vital richness that is our birthright. They called the empowering qualities “arete,” usually translated as “virtue.” The habits that keep the soul in chains were called the “vices.”
It is ironic, I think, that “virtue” has become such a weak word denoting the restraint of a person’s vital desires. A virtuous person is one who does not do certain things, mostly sexual. But the classical meaning of virtue was one of a powerful and courageous engagement with the mysteries of life. The virtues excavate the channels of deeper wisdom while the vices keep us trapped in the shadows of our conditioned minds. The virtues open our hearts to the risk of love, while the vices keep us hidden in the false security of fear, anger, and defensiveness.
So what does all of this have to do with aging and beauty? First, it seems obvious that the journey toward maturity takes time. Aging does not guarantee maturity, but in my experience the important lessons of life are learned slowly, sometime painfully, and over and over again. Admittedly I am a slow learner. I did not even make a serious start on the path of growth until my mid-thirties when the death of loved ones and of my first marriage crumbled the beliefs and certainties that had shored up the walls of my illusory world. But that broken heart I nearly rejected turned out to have broken open, and the journey began. If the Buddha is correct, the darkening illusions of mind and heart are the source of great suffering, but they are also the ground of growth. We are lotus flowers rooted in the mud of life, but reaching for the stars. Thus, when our conditioned system of illusory beliefs is threatened, some people retreat ever deeper into the comforting womb of the anonymous “they,” and remain embedded in the attachments that cause suffering. Others, graced with luck and good friends perhaps, begin the long, arduous, and ultimately joyful journey toward themselves. For me, this journey is never-ending and fraught with challenge. It therefore calls for a daily re-commitment to a longing for awakening and a daily re-affirmation of trust. But the rewards have been incalculable. Now in my mid-seventies, I can honestly say that each decade of my life has been an improvement over the previous one as I have slowly developed perspective and nurtured the openness of my heart. Yes, there are daily challenges to what I think I know, and who I think I am. Yet the journey continues, and it is filled with surprising joys and magnificent vistas, warm trust and enduring love, whose richness was unimaginable to my younger self.