Vanity in Vain: Some Spiritual Thoughts About Our Aging Bodies
by Amy Scholten, M.P.H.
"You look so young," my doctor says, staring at me in disbelief. "Thank you," I respond, genuinely flattered. Okay, so I'm beyond flattered...I'm ebullient with joy!. As I get older, I appreciate these comments more than ever. But why is it such a compliment to be told that I look younger than I am? Why would it be considered insulting if my doctor had said, "My goodness, Amy, you look your age," or "Boy, Amy, you look old?" Upon reflection, I realize that it's because I've bought into widespread beliefs about aging and the body. And also because I'm vain...guilty as charged!
So what if I'm vain? We live in a vain society! A woman has a right to embrace her vanity!
I leave my doctor's office and try to resist a strong urge to climb to the top of the nearest hill and shout, "Hey everybody, I'm still young! I'm not aging! Nah, nah, nah, NAH, nah! " But my superego quickly beats me with a cane, reminding me that I'm not being "spiritual," and that gloating like this is highly narcissistic. Then my id interjects with a disturbing rationalization: I had better enjoy it now, baby, because someday soon it's going to wrinkle, sag and then rot in the ground. OUCH!!!
The (Graying) Roots of Our Dilemma
Who am I trying to kid about being a kid, anyway? My mirror has been screaming insults at me for a while now. The signs of aging are there, even though I may be "aging well" thanks to an active lifestyle, good nutrition, and Clairol Natural Instincts Medium Brown. "Aging well"—that's an oxymoron, isn't it? Go to any greeting card store and you'll get an education on aging—that it's a "lousy beautician," that we'll end up looking like (and eating lots of) prunes, that we'll parttake in walker-thons down the halls of antiseptic-smelling nursing homes, but that none of this will matter anyway because as we become deaf, blind, and incontinent, we'll also not be able to remember any of it!! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
Aside from perverse and sadistic birthday cards, something's just not right here. Failing eyesight and bladder control products aside, why does our society have such fear and disdain toward aging? I believe a lot of it has to do with the ego—a false image we have about self (and others) that's characterized by the following beliefs:
"I'm my body."
"I'm defined by what I achieve."
"I'm defined by others' opinions of me."
"I'm defined by what I have."
"I'm separate from everyone and everything."
Not only do we have our own nasty ego to deal with, but collective (societal) ego as well—in fact, they reinforce each other. We're constantly being brainwashed! If our only point of view is the ego's, then we're limited to our five senses and therefore a strictly material (and depressing) view of life, one that's confined to space and time. From the ego's point of view, life is essentially defined by death. And we wonder why we fear aging! If I'm just a body and I live in a society where youthful beauty and productivity are the ideal, I'm going to lose everything!
So what do we do in response to this? Many times, we cave into ego fears and create a whole heck of a lot of misery. We live frantically—sometimes even brutually—in an effort to avoid losing everything, and in the process disregard our divine excellence and the bigger picture behind it all. Could it help perhaps to choose a more expansive view?
From Idolatry to Eternity: An Expansive Perpective on Aging
I won't argue for one minute that aging is a piece of cake! Between failing eyesight, reading glasses that I'm always misplacing, stiff joints, and the death of my dear mom a few years ago, I've only scratched the surface of the "adventures" of aging. But the only way I'll psychologically survive on this worldly plane of existence is through a shift in consciousness from a limited egoic/material perspective to an expansive Divine Mind perspective.
As I see it, there are four key spiritual things we can do to help preserve our sanity as we age. They are:
Get to Know Your Real Self
Who are you...I mean, really—underneath your hair, your skin, your eyes, your body, your achievements, your "personality?" It takes a degree of spiritual faith or intuition maybe, but I think most of us at least catch glimpses of an eternal aspect of the self that goes way beyond the limited and superficial images of self that we've created. This most often comes to us when we're feeling completely relaxed and nonthreatened, such as during deep meditation, prayer, or communing with nature.
At the risk of sounding like a teeth gnashing Bible Belt preacher, I'm using the term "idolatry" to define what has become so prevalent in our age-despising society—the worship of false gods. In the contemporary world, this translates into the worship of youth and youthful attractiveness, money, status, possessions, and many other fleeting things. It's not that there's anything wrong with with these things. It's just that they don't last, and therefore, from a spiritual/eternal perspective, aren't even really real. If you want some peace of mind about aging, try not to worship the tenuous aspects of life. I know it's easier said than done!
Adopt An Eternal Perspective
At the tiniest level of being, we're pure energy, and energy never dies—it just changes form. While trapped in the body, your form changes over time, but you—the energy that enlivens the form known as your body—is a part of eternal, unchanging Divine Mind. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of your body as temporary, but of yourself as eternal.
Challenge Beliefs About Aging
We're all too familiar with those depressing beliefs about aging! Do I need to mention them again? Sagging, illness, frailty, senility, lack of productivity, and death. Ugh! And ugh again!!! We're practically brainwashed to have these expectations. Yet there are thousands and thousands of beautiful elderly people all around us who are living healthy, active, productive, and simply amazing lives. Studies have shown that people with positive attitudes toward aging tend to age well and stay healthier and more active than their counterparts with more negative attitudes. Don't take the nasty messages in those greeting cards to heart. At the same time, it's quite healthy to laugh at yourself and the aging process, whenever possible!
The Body as a Means of Communication
Okay, so if we're not really bodies, do we just disregard them and the aging process entirely? What's the point in eating right and exercising? Over time I've learned that while we're not bodies, our bodies are very much divine and present for a reason. That reason isn't idolatry. We don't need to build shrines to worship our bodies. We're not here to use our bodies in unloving ways, for ego-boosting purposes, or to hurt others. Rather, our bodies are ultimately for communication, to help heal and unite the separation that exists among humankind and his/her world. We have a long, long way to go. But with this purpose in mind, the body is a temple, and taking care of it and delaying the aging process isn't vain nor "in vain."