I got to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other night and I tell you, it turns our whole American obsession with youth on its head. It’s about a man who ages in reverse. He’s born old and grows young. That whole concept didn’t seem very appealing until a recent trip to the beach left me with an unexpected sunburn and subsequent wrinkles around–of all places–my bellybutton. Aging backward looked real good about then.
I started thinking about all the other movies that have come out—not to mention TV shows that have had special episodes—where the main character(s) go back to their youth in some supernatural way. It proves over and over again the Western world’s fear of aging and our obsession with outward beauty.
I have a very dear friend who has obsessed over her age for as long as I’ve known her (she’s WAY passed retirement and looks amazing). It breaks my heart because she’s fighting a losing battle.
Solomon says there are benefits to youth–fleetness, stamina, beauty. For some of us, we know we’ve left youth in the dust when hair coloring becomes a staple in the monthly budget. For all of us, it comes when the stamina has stayed, the fleetness has fled, and the external beauty makes way for the wrinkles of time. I’m fortunate, at 47, I still am a few years away from regular strands of gray hair marring my otherwise brunette head. But my years are a dead giveaway on the mornings after a late night of writing when the bags under my eyes look like a pair of lumpy pillows.
As a society (I’m talking mostly to Americans here), we have deified youth. Ask any popular actress of the last thirty years and they will tell you that age is the death of their careers. I’d be willing to bet that our recent obsession with the whole vampire theme in every medium is grounded in our longing for immortal youth. We hate growing old so much that we actually mock the aged. We shun growing old as if it were AIDS. We cover it, paint it, moisturize it, color it, fade it, cut it, and inject it with every conceivable means to stave off the inevitable.
I can’t tell you how many women I know who have had breast implants. Now after breast-feeding 2 ½ babies (I was done at two, but made a lame attempt with the third), I can’t lie and say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. But God has kept me broke enough to where the temptation is far out of my reach anyway. But if I had the money, would it be vanity to give in to such a modification? Is it telling God he didn’t make me good enough—for every day of my life regardless of my age—so it’s up to me to fix what he got wrong?
What about braces? If God allowed my teeth to be crooked, is it vanity to get them straightened? Is it vanity for a woman to wear make-up? To curl her hair if it’s straight or straighten it if its curly? Is it vanity for a man to want a six-pack (ab muscles, not beer)? Where do you draw the line?
I think it lies somewhere between “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23) and “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (John 2:15). I think it comes down to how honest we want to be with God and with ourselves. I think we have to constantly evaluate our motives why we do what we do.
It’s so easy for us to drift away from our pure motives in loving and serving God. Many of us have such a short-term spiritual memory that we’re drifting as soon as the alarm goes off in the morning. We drift when we hear a commercial for hair gel or see an advertisement for Calvin Klein Jeans. We drift when we check out at the grocery store and come face to face with the fabricated beauty of a few who are held up as the personification of perfection.
We drift when we forget that we are all–every single one of us–made in the image of the perfect Creator.
I’m not there yet, but I want to be able to welcome old age. First, it brings me that much closer to ‘going home’, second, I find out more and more each day just how smart my parents were, and third, I’ll save a TON of money in wrinkle cream. Most importantly, though, I want to be able to embrace old age because God says it is something to be revered. Age brings wisdom, or at least it’s supposed to. And in God’s book (Ecclesiastes, in particular), there are few things more valuable than wisdom.
We as Americans are notorious for putting away our parents when they as seniors can no longer care for themselves. We abandon our most value resource; we tuck it neatly away in a home. Granted, there are some very valid reasons for this–how can we care for our parents when we have to work full-time just to support ourselves? (We reluctantly put our children in daycare for the same reason.) My mother and I have a “I love her but I’m going to strangle her relationship” and I’m wondering how I will survive her living with me full-time when that moment eventually comes (they may have to put ME in a home after a few years). Maybe, somewhere deep down some of us don’t want our aged parents around because they remind us too much of what we’ll lose as we age or what we could become.
I have another friend who kept her sickly grandmother in her house until the needy woman just recently passed. It was a very real burden on the family for several years with everyone in the family taking turns being home with the grandmother. But how different is it than when we have children?
Benjamin Button was born old and like all of us, he needed to be cared for by his mother. He grew younger physically over the years while his mind grew old. And when he died, it was in his beloved’s arms as an infant. I admit I was sobbing at the end of the movie but it brought home just how very much alike youth and old age are if we but have eyes to see it. We come into this world needing people to care for us and we exit it needing people to care for us. It’s acceptable to need others as children. It’s embarrassing to need it as adults.
Maybe our desperate clinging to youth isn’t so much our fascination with it as our terror of it slipping through our fingers. Maybe it’s our pride in having to return to complete dependence on others after we’ve so completely achieved independence. As children, we don’t have enough pride yet to realize it’s “a sign of weakness” to need people. In that case, I think wisdom doesn’t come with age as much as it comes with surrendering to the inevitable and realizing we’d enjoy the ride a lot more if we didn’t fight the current quite so hard.