Huffington Post recently reported research suggesting that children ages 3-5 believe that aging results from birthday parties not the other way around. Children view aging as the goal of life and that the birthday party propels them along the aging process. But as we age, we increasingly view birthdays as a reminder of our own mortality, a disease for which there is no known cure. Unlike young children who view the birthday as a transition to a more exciting life, we adults often view birthdays as a reminder of the human apocalyptic life cycle.
I recall learning in elementary school in Florida the legend of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico. He reportedly came to Florida in his fruitless search for the Fountain of Youth which, according to legend was thought to restore youth to anyone. Similar stories of the Fountain of Youth preceded Ponce De Leon by hundreds of years and have always been with us. The story of Ponce de Leon is the story of all of us. No one wants to grow old and we too often find ourselves searching for that elusive Fountain of Youth.
Science promotes modern visions of the Fountain of Youth that energize us to continue Ponce De Leon’s disappointing search for the key to living forever. Anti-aging foods, medicines, wrinkle reducing creams, and “tucks” respond to society’s demand for the removal of all reminders that we are in fact aging. Moreover, laboratory research around the world searches for the cause of human cell deterioration over time in efforts to understand and ultimately to eliminate the cause of death.
The irony is that if science is successful our planet will succumb under its own weight. Early signs include overuse of natural resources, and mass starvation in some areas of the world as an increasing population lives longer. By treating aging as a disease to be cured, we may be foretelling the dismal future of civilization.
What if we were to replace longevity as the goal for human life with that of enhanced quality of life? Might we start embracing the aging process as an opportunity for happiness and fulfillment rather than a lifelong campaign to prove ourselves worthy of transcending the ultimate triumph of the aging process which is death? Why is it that people whose faith proclaims aging as culminating in a joyful transition nevertheless choose to view aging only as the path to catastrophic death.
What if we were to decide that aging, like all other aspects of human life, can proceed with a purpose rather than with inevitability? What if humans were to take advantage of the aging process to make the kinds of choices that enable them to take charge of the aging process rather than stoically endure its consequences? What if, in additional to planning our families, careers, education, gardens, travel and places to live, we actually embraced the possibility of also planning how we will age? What if we started making decisions now on how we want our aging process to unfold? Why, when we assume control so many aspects of our lives, we nevertheless assume we have no control over the aging process? Do we fear that if we talk about managing the aging process it will hasten aging?
Some religious people say that the purpose of human life is to deserve and reserve a room with a view in the Heavenly Hotel? But is creation really intended solely to provide a habitat for humans to prepare for a time when they no longer live on earth? I hope not. What a bore!
Jesus, the Christian’s best window into the meaning of creation, argued in the Gospel of John that living abundantly, not living forever, is the purpose of human life. Nevertheless, we often surrender our expectation for happiness and fulfillment as we approach retirement and gradual dependency. The expectation for happiness is too often replaced with an expectation of doctor visits, prescriptions, aches and pains, loss, increasing isolation and forgetfulness. We overlook the possibility that even in the midst of these distractions of aging, there remains opportunity for purposeful and meaningful lives promised by our faith.
AARP tells us that by 2060, the percentage of Montana’s population 85-plus will increase by 200 percent. This frightens those who must fund government and public services. But it also means that in our time, thousands of Montanans will live longer than their predecessors, will have longer post retirement and thus the gift of more time to discover and find happiness. But this will only be true if they plan to use that time for joy.