Monday, January 27, 2014

Aging and Beauty (Part 2: The Joy)

In Part 1 I talked about the sadness that comes with the loss of physical beauty as we age.  In Part 2, I want to discuss the joy that I have found in this process.

For many young people (and here, I am thinking mostly of teenagers) the thought of old or even middle-aged people expressing attraction for one other is a chilling and grotesque one.  My daughter regularly upbraids me and my wife for kissing each other.  It disgusts her.  I am not completely certain that her view is the normative one for modern teenagers, but it is that old people (by which I think she means anyone over the age of 40) should cease to have fun, cease to pretend that they could ever be physically attractive to another person, and basically just shuffle off to the old folks' home to patiently await death.

But that is not what we old folks actually do, much to the consternation of the youthful.  We continue to find each other attractive.  But there is more.  I can say without reservation that I find a greater percentage of women (and men, for that matter) attractive today than at any time in my life.  When I was young, I too failed to see the beauty in older women.  But now I can see it.

Now, this could be true in part because older women actually are more attractive today than forty years ago.  It is possible that increase in the practice of healthy eating and regular exercise have made older women objectively more attractive than the older women of decades past.  But I do not believe that this is the main effect.  I think the main effect is manifold, and that each component of it has to do rather more with my sight than with the physical appearances of the people I am seeing.

On the one hand, with age, I think that there normally comes a sort of healthy humility:  a realization that we ourselves are shot through with flaws, pimples, warts, annoying asymmetries, and aesthetic aberrations.  This often can have the effect of causing us to leave off scrutinizing the flaws of others, including flaws in physical beauty.  If we notice them, we tend to forgive them.

But, beyond that, certain "flaws" inherent in aging actually seem to enhance the beauty of the other.  At our ages, we are all to be congratulated (a bit) for merely being survivors of all we have endured.   And the crinkles around the eyes, the crease lines in the forehead ... these are the emblems of our heroic survival.  We know it to be true of ourselves.  We have these age lines because we have worried much, and we have worried much because we have loved deeply.  Our scars have all become beauty marks.

But the last part of the effect which I'd like to discuss is perhaps the most important:  as we age, we learn to see inwardly.  That is, we learn to read a person's soul in his or her visage.  We learn to recognize extremely subtle hints in the physiognomy (the narrowing of the eyes by 0.5 mm, or the transient twitch of a nostril, or the tiniest upward curl at one edge of the mouth), things which are definite clues to the character and beauty of the soul within, but which we would have missed in the days of our youth.

The observation of beauty, as it happens with age, is a great and seemingly solitary counter-example of the overwhelming trend for humans to become jaded with the passing of time.  This "unjading" is a remarkable thing.  In almost every other area, our tolerance for a thing becomes greater, and we must have ever and ever more of it in order to become excited.  But not with beauty as observed by an older man, at least one who has (under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit) been paying attention and carefully honing his observational skills.  He breaks the rule.  He is like a man who at 21 needed twenty drinks to become drunk, but who now can become intoxicated by a mere sip.  Beauty is in all people.  Only now, we can see it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Aging and Beauty (Part 1: The Sadness)

My ex-Brother-in-Law used to describe the loss of beauty in an aging person by stating that he or she had been "hit over the head by the Ugly Stick."  It is obvious that our appearance changes as we age and that, on average, it decays quite a bit.

The decay usually happens slowly, especially to ourselves or others that we see on a daily basis.  On the other hand, when we see a current photo of someone we've not seen in twenty years, the aging effect seems stark and sudden, and brings us up short.

I actually want to talk here about the opposite effect, that of suddenly seeing an old photograph, taken in youth, of a person we have seen gradually age for years or decades.  It, too, brings me up short, but in a different way.  It could be a celebrity, a friend, or even an enemy, but the sudden glimpse back in time to see the image of that person, brimful of youthful beauty and energy ... well it has an odd effect on me.

In the first two seconds after seeing such an image, I am almost always overcome by the beauty of the person.  I had totally forgotten how great they had looked back in the day.  Over the years, I gradually came to accept as normal and "real" the ever more tarnished image I saw, and the sudden return to the untarnished state brings with it a rush of joy, an exhilaration that has to do with the energy of life at its very core.

As this exhilaration fades, I feel a few seconds of kinship with the person.  I won't say "love", for people accuse me of using that word to easily, but I will say that I have a warm, fond feeling for the person, and a wish for him or her to be happy and young again.  I am "rooting" for him.  I am "on her side" in the struggle against beauty-robbing age.  I want blessings to fall on them, perpetually.   And the odd thing is, this effect happens even with my enemies (e.g., political opponents).  I am not very good at keeping Christ's commandment to love my enemies, but seeing youthful photographs of them seems to allow me to do so, with nothing held back.  It is a nice feeling.  I think, "Sure, they did this or that harmful thing to me, but ... oh, my, how splendid they looked back then."  Or, something like that.

And then, the awful Third Wave comes:  A debilitating and paralyzing sadness, sweeping over me like a wave and pulling me under.  Look what has happened to us, what we have become!  Look what time has done to us!  Behold, in a human face, what the curse pronounced on "the two orchard thieves" (as Herman Melville described our first parents) has done to us.  How sad it all is, living in a fallen, decaying world.

The image of the youthful face reminds us of what might have been, and of what can never be again.  And this last wave of emotion stays with me longer than the first, more joyous two.  We have sinned.  We have fallen short.  And God has bludgeoned us with the Ugly Stick.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Gym Shoot with Jeff Sygo

A bodybuilder only looks his or her best for a few weeks out of the year, and so it is advisable to take lots of photographs during these periods (usually around the dates of competitions).  It helps us to remember how good we can be, and allows us to cherish the results of our months of hard work long after returning body fat has come to obscure the underlying muscles.

Here are some photos by Jeff Sygo of SymiPhotography, shot at the Powerhouse Gym in Fenton, Michigan.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sobriety as Superpower

I have had a breakthrough.

Like many of my paradigm-shifting breakthrough thoughts, this one came to me while in the middle of a 45-minute cardio session.  When I do cardio, my brain gives a simple set of instructions to my body:  "Try and keep it around 135 bpm, and I'll see you in 45 minutes."  My mind then goes off to ponder, pray, or play.  And sometimes it even comes up with something brilliant.

For some time, I have been trying to stop drinking alcohol.  I can succeed for months (or sometimes years) at a time but, so far, I've always gone back.  One of the reasons it is hard for me is that to accomplish it, I must refrain from doing something.  I tend to to better at reaching goals which cause me to do things than at ones which make in necessary not to do a certain thing.

Quite naturally, I think, I have been thinking of sobriety as a negative ... it consists of NOT doing something.  I've unconsciously thought of it as being like darkness, which has no real existence of its own, but is merely the absence of light.  In like manner, sobriety is the absence of fun drinking.

But what if I were able to think of sobriety as a real, tangible, positive entity?  I think it would help me.  So, my idea is to redefine the baseline from which I take my measurements regarding productivity and success in life.  In the past, I've always assumed my baseline productivity level to be that which I can achieve with 100% perpetual sobriety.  Any drunkenness will cause degradation to this productivity level.  No place to go but down.

Now, I am going to create a new mental baseline.  My new baseline is the level of success and productivity I would achieve by going out once per week and getting really drunk.  After such an event, I am generally weaker in the gym for at least the next 3 days.  I have to sleep more, so that time is lost in addition to the actual 3 or 4 hours lost during the drinking itself.  There are many other areas of life in which similar levels of degradation are noticed.  For argument's sake, let's assume that my overall effectiveness for the week is 80% of what it would be assuming 100% sobriety.  So now, this 80% level is my new 100% level, my new "expected" baseline level. 

A few magical things happen from this way of thinking.  One is that it is now possible to go up beyond 100% productivity -- all the way up to 125%, in fact.  And how is this achieved? By the positive, forceful, and strong thing we call sobriety.

And that is the other magical thing:  sobriety is now a positive entity.

Suppose you are a bodybuilder, and you are told that there is a supplement that can cause you to be 25% more effective in the gym.  And, by the way, it's free!  You would jump at the opportunity!  That super supplement is sobriety.

Or, again, what if someone told you that when you go to parties, you could have a 25% better mental acuity and 25% better ability to see through phony people.  And that you could drive better, play games better, read faster, lift more weight, produce more at work, and feel better.  It would seem to you as nothing less than a superpower!  This superpower is sobriety, and I am planning on exploiting it from now on.