Nature designed humans with an inability to imagine what reality will look like after twenty-years. When I gave birth to my son, Jon, I couldn’t conceive what kind of person he would be or what he’d look like in two decades. After years spent hovering over the exuberant toddler and worrying about the rebellious teen-ager, I considered it a miracle he lived past his teens. A normal guy, perhaps a little more cautious than most, I still felt grateful Jon endured the adolescent testosterone onslaught. Many males haven’t survived the heightened hormonal-induced recklessness of the teens and early twenties. Human existence could seem tenuous at times. Perhaps nature limited our ability to perceive longer time periods because shorter terms proved to be more practical and realistic.
When I stopped to appreciate human growth, the physical changes from childhood into adulthood remained wondrous. No other twenty years created such enormous transitions. But every twenty- year epoch of our lives encompassed enough changes to be astonishing.
I’ve observed that, between twenty and forty years old, we had the least amount of physical change compared to similar lengths of time. However, if you’d asked me at twenty what kind of person I would be or what I would look like at age forty, I could visualize my young self frown, trying to comprehend such a thing, and saying, “But I’ll be so old.” I’ve noticed my nephews and nieces in their forties grew grey or bald and developed deepened lines on their faces. When you’ve just passed the teen years, such a fate would seem unbelievable.
As a forty-year-old, I couldn’t fathom how I’d appear at sixty, a time when people usually developed double chins, droopy jowls and deep crows’ feet. The space around the eyes became hollowed or baggy. The writer, George Orwell, said that, “At age fifty, we all have the face we deserve.”
I’d add to Orwell, “At sixty, even more so.”
At age sixty, I sported the crinkly skin around the eyes and hanging chin and jawline, but I still recognized my face in the mirror as “me.” Not because I looked like I did at twenty or forty, but because I wanted to believe I hadn’t changed much. I hated to admit I might look like a senior citizen and worry about society’s negative assumptions about old people: being too slow, we were a drag to be around. I’d much rather remain in denial and pretend all the young people I met assumed I was as bright and up-to-date as the next person.
Recently, visiting my late Mom’s old house that I still owned, I ran into former neighbors, Roy and his younger brother Bob. I hadn’t seen them for fifty years. Oddly, Bob, a shy bachelor with no children, looked exactly the same. I learned later that Roy became an alcoholic, which seemed to account for his wild hair and fierce stare. I introduced myself and he remembered my name, saying, “Oh yeah, the Kauffman girl.” He squinted his eyes and tilted his head as he gazed at me and added, “Well, maybe, I guess so.” From Roy’s honest assessment, I assumed that when I recognized myself as the same “Kaethe” as I’d been at age twenty, I indulged in considerable wishful thinking.
Maybe I’d better accept Buddhism’s principle of the impermanent self. My studies in Buddhism taught me that we have no stable essence. Our emotional, physical and spiritual energies constantly evolved. I understood these concepts. But I didn’t want these changes to include sagging skin. I preferred denial. Although I considered myself a good Buddhist, I habitually hedged my bets, thinking, Yes, I’ve changed, but I don’t have that many wrinkles. However, whenever I tried and failed to picture what comes at the end of a twenty-year span in myself and others, Buddhism made sense.
I now face another mind boggling time line. I’m seventy-two. Who will I be, if I’m still alive, at ninety-two? Looking toward that far-away future constitutes a huge stretch for my poor brain. A friend, Marjory, is ninety-two and I hope to be like her. She goes to the gym every day, is vibrant and energetic and looks sixty. I hate the gym, so my prospects of imitating Marjory seem dim. But I’m hopeful and wonder what kind of visage I might have at ninety? My seventy-two-year-old face will probably be long gone. Since I can’t perceive my ninety-year old self, accepting impermanence might help me let go of unrealistic expectations.
However, I can be sure of one thing: life remains an ongoing wonder. I’m grateful to be old enough that I can contemplate the next twenty years that, with luck, will lead me into my nineties.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.