Our culture does not celebrate aging as it should.
Sure, it celebrates the heck out of little kids. Weekends these days are like Birthdaypalooza, after which we nurse our kids’ chips+juice+icing hangovers or better yet Trampoline Park Strep. And yet we go. TBH, they’re mostly super fun.
Little kids claim their age with glee, and in quarterly increments. We say, ‘How big you are!’ and ‘Look at what you can do now that you’re 6!’ We celebrate their progress, development, and even the number itself.
When does that stop?
I’m thinking back and I really can’t remember. Maybe 22 was anticlimactic? Certainly you’re not celebrating 30 much. And everything after that — especially for women — comes with a bit of a cringe.
We certainly don’t celebrate age at that point, and I frankly don’t think we’ve ever really celebrated aging. If we do at all, it’s superficial and trite: Helen Mirren is still ‘worth it’ and of course there’s the ‘I’ve earned these wrinkles’ tropes. (Sidenote: Dame Mirren is stunning.)
Why must we reassure ourselves that we’re still worthy? What about the wisdom of elders? My close friends who are 50+ are the coolest people I know: warm, unafraid, and full of good humor. These women are quick with a joke and a hug, but they don’t try and solve it — and they certainly don’t need you to solve it for them.
I want to celebrate the process of aging — particularly what is gained by growing older.
Let’s start by taking some time to appreciate the wisdom that only comes from some serious smack-downs by the fierce hand of life. We’ve all had them, from your basic slip-up to full-on tragedy. I bet you can count off five without even trying. Damn those were hard, and they changed us.
In my experience though, there are few better teachers than failure, humiliation, illness, and loss. And without the inescapable heartache they bring, we may not have learned some of our greatest lessons.
The beautiful irony is that although these sorrows pierce us through, they are ultimately the things that make us whole.
As the inimitable Maya Angelou says, ‘I’ve had so many rainbows in my clouds. I’ve had lot clouds. But I have had so many rainbows.’
Seeing beyond the clouds takes grace, humility, empathy, and gratitude. And when clouds part we can glimpse those rainbows. We see the bigger picture.
Speaking of the bigger picture, what about The Biggest Picture? I’m talking about the view of earth from space.
A few weeks ago I watched One Strange Rock with the kids. The first episode is about astronauts, and they each speak of their experience outside the atmosphere.
I found it so interesting that they each spoke with a similar reverence; it sounded an awful lot like love. I don’t think the show mentioned The Overview Effect specifically, but the astronauts’ tone stuck with me, and the term wasn’t hard to find — although I hadn’t heard it before.
The Overview Effect is the name given to what dozens of astronauts experience when they look back at the earth from space.
They explain being overcome with a feeling of awe and tenderness — a profound connection that feels expansive and yet very personal — and a deep sense of magnanimity.
Well, that sounds pretty fantastic. Sign me up!
But I am optimistic realist, and may not make it to space. So I’ve developed a plan B in the form of a theory.
My theory is that aging may be the closest thing we get to experiencing The Overview Effect. Bear with me.
First off, I’m not going to fool you; it’s going to take a little work on our part. After all, astronauts are typically scientists, doctors, or military leadership, and need about three years of additional training and at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet. This is not your 80s Space Camp, friends.
The Overview Effect is earned — but it’s not entirely inaccessible to us laypeople.
The work: Think back over your life and find the outliers. Revisit those moments of brilliant sunshine: joy, hope, achievement. Think also of your darkest hours — the ones full of fear, shame, uncertainty, loss, and sadness.
Focus on the good ones first. In those moments of happiness, there’s a good chance you didn’t realize how great those experiences were at the time. Maybe you did, which is awesome. I know I didn’t always; I’m better at that now.
Likewise, if you look back at the hard times from your current vantage point, I bet you’ll see how essential they were to your becoming the person you are now. Adversity is the shortcut to spiritual growth.
Case in point: I’ve made no secret of my struggles, on the blog, and in real life — to everyone I have coffee with and sometimes even the cashier at Walgreens, poor unsuspecting soul.
My struggle is very real to me. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be full of gratitude in the midst of struggle. In fact, I think the two are closer than we think.
With every passing year, I become more convinced that the struggle is the gift.
By way of example (and perhaps also a shameless plug for the blog and a handy index):
Through abuse I learned to overcome.
Through death I learned compassion.
Through depression I learned self-care.
Through parenting I learned to let go.
Through inauthenticity I learned authenticity.
Through failure I learned resilience.
Through rejection I learned acceptance.
How generous my struggles have been with me.
Despite one more circle ‘round the sun, I don’t feel old. Hell, I know I’m not even middle-aged yet.
But I’ve lived enough to watch myself change, and sometimes even to trigger the change myself. I have found rainbows where I thought there were only clouds. Maybe it’s hindsight with rose-colored glasses; I think it’s my very own Overview Effect.
Like an astronaut captivated by our brilliant blue planet — the only known nest for humanity — I feel soft-hearted toward the sunrises and storms I’ve endured. I know that am better for them both.
The struggle is the gift. Happy Birthday to me.
The Beth List
Guiltless Screen-time with the Kids
(age 5 until they roll their eyes or get phones)
**Kid-tested and approved**
- (Obviously) Blue Planet, Life, and basically anything on BBC Earth
- Cosmos, One Strange Rock, Moving Art
- My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Camelot
- Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Princess Bride, The Parent Trap (1961)
- Neverending Story (still working up to Labyrinth — maybe this weekend!)