This week, Benedict XVI became the first Pope in six centuries to abdicate. Pope Benedict told the world that he decided to step down before his 86th birthday because he no longer had the strength to lead more than a billion Catholics. His resignation prompted an outpouring of editorializing about how we age as human beings.
This week, the Grammy for "Song of the Year" went to Nate Ruess for "We Are Young." In his acceptance speech, Ruess was self-deprecating when he acknowledged, "I don''t know what I was thinking when I wrote the chorus for this song. Indeed anyone watching in high-definition can see that I''m not very young." Later Ruess explained that, keying into the youth-oriented culture of the Western world, his band -- known as “Fun"-- had created an uplifting pop tune to give listeners lyrics that they want to hear. Sure enough, they won the most coveted prize in the music industry.
Someone recently accused me of giving in to the same societal trend. During a light lunch with some physicians, a rheumatologist casually asked, "Ben do you really think you''re fooling the hands of time by dying your hair?"
"First of all," I corrected him, "I prefer to say that I color my hair, since we oncologists are hypersensitive about words related to d-i-e. It''s also pretty clear," I continued, "that you''re not reading my blog, since it is, in part, named for my age, which I’ve repeatedly mentioned is 52. Short of uploading my birth certificate to the website, I’m not sure how much more I can do to indicate that I''m comfortable with my age."
In retrospect, I found my colleague''s question to be a bit gauche and my reaction, a little defensive. Luckily, we all moved on to a different topic and to dessert. My colleague’s question, however, prompted me to consider why it is that I color my hair.
Color is truly the operative word. I have, as it happens, close to zero pigmentation in my skin. Caucasians come in many shades, but the Crayola crayon to describe my skin tone would have to be "igloo". Coloring my hair is not about camouflaging my age -- as I think I said, I''m 52 years old! But, let''s be honest, it is certainly an aesthetic decision. And while I don''t view it as a lifestyle statement about ageing, I acknowledge that it is a reflection of something I''m not necessarily proud of; my vanity. In short, I do it because I think it makes me look better, not because I think it makes me look younger.
As a physician, I was trained to assess a patient''s chronological age. The key piece of anatomy that doctors examine to determine "vintage" is the neck. (So if you want to stump those carnival gurus who offer to guess your age, best to wear a scarf.) Often, if you were to open a medical record, you''d find statements like, "The patient is a 98-year-old man who appears younger than his stated chronological age." We doctors constantly compare chronological age and physiological age. In our business, age is an important parameter.
And ageing is an important process. Fortunately, however -- data from the Census Bureau and the National Institute of Ageing will back me up -- ageing does not become an unbearable curse for most people. Still, though, in a society predicated on youthfulness, it can be a challenge to view ageing as a blessing.
As I get older, I become more aware of the fragility of my body. I can''t do all the things I used to do, but I can endeavor to find creative alternatives. Also, I’ve become more accepting of my own susceptibility to sickness and, I hope, more sensitive to others who are ill.
As I get older, I notice that the ratio of funerals to weddings, graduations, and bar/bat mitzvas that I attend is growing larger. More and more, to my chagrin, I see my own peers dying, and I appreciate that the good friends and close relatives whom I lose are irreplaceable.
During the winters, I do my daily swim in an indoor pool. The pool I use, not quite Olympic size but always well-heated and meticulously cleaned, is located in the independent-living facility adjacent to the hospital where I work. I’ve noticed that I’m the only one swimming there who was born after 1940. If you saw Ron Howard''s sci-fi movie “Cocoon,” then you know the pool. And, cocoons or no cocoons, as in the film, swimming in those waters with an elderly population is nothing less than a rejuvenating experience.
Each morning as people finish their swim, interesting conversations ensue. My older buddies always have something to contribute. Their forte is not knowledge but rather a less quantifiable entity: wisdom. By wisdom, I''m referring to the common sense and confidence to draw sound conclusions from life''s experiences. My older friends stress, for example, moderation as an antidote to extremism and single-mindedness. They caution that it''s not worth fighting with family members since estrangement, a potential, would be too big a price to pay. Repeatedly, they nag me about the importance of companionship. I can''t help but conclude that ageing brings more clarity of wisdom.
All in all, I think that yesterday''s explorers, like Ponce De Leon who sought his "fountain of youth," as well as today''s futurists, like Ray Kurzweil who believes that nanotechnologies will grant us immortality, both err. Ageing is part of the human experience. It certainly poses challenges, but it also brings gifts, and luckily, we have ways to cope--sometimes on an intellectual plane by trying to benefit from each other''s wisdom, sometimes on an emotional level by trying to benefit from each other''s company, and sometimes by doing purely frivolous things, like dying our hair, not with any idea of “fooling the hands of time” but simply trying to look good.