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.