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.