Saints and Scoundrels

A moral romp through the triumphs and travails of prominent Westerners.

Aging Gracefully

Who has it better -- Prince William or George Clooney?

For all the world to see, Prince William bowed his balding head yesterday and wed Kate Middleton. How quickly William has grown up, now a man looking quite a bit older than his twenty-eight years. And how quickly William's father Charles has wizened. Life dashes by us, rich and cashless alike.

What must William think, now that the world has already moved on to new stories showcasing youth and glamour? His honeymoon will be over before he knows it, his first child will walk beside him while yesterday's ceremony still seems like yesterday, and he will be even balder.

Some might applaud William for the apparent decision to forego Propecia and Rogaine, two drugs widely used by men to stave off hair loss. For whatever reason, William seems to be allowing nature to take its course. Meanwhile, countless thousands of Westerners are fighting aging like Libyan rebels grimly determined to overthrow Qaddafi. Pondering what illusions and strength we lose from decade to decade can make us feel as though someone signed us up for death on the installment plan.

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We will likely never know whether William will avail himself of Viagra, should his sexual performance start to decline in another decade or so. We may never find out whether he even cares that his once fetching looks have gone. We do know, though, that his mother struggled with aging. Books and articles and biopics made her steely resolve to remain desirable familiar to us. Her commitment to vitality made her seem more human to us, and we liked her more for the struggle.  Before she could move out of middle age, she died, effectively stopping the clock. We will always remember her as youngish.

What can the rest of us learn from Prince William, the young-old man? Whether we are his age or already in the midst of middle age, we can all benefit from a few tips:

1) Everything has its season: learn it! On each birthday, we move past an age we will never revisit. It is gone, for better or for worse. The same for decades. Learn to make the most of what you have when you have it - a full head of hair, a high metabolism, a debt-free credit card, fluency in French, knowledge of what women want, or who we really are (it can take an awfully long time to figure it out).

2) Strive for something: a neater garden or a lower bowling score or qualifying for a marathon or achieving financial freedom. Set goals and attain them. The point is to remain independent and productive as long as possible. Aging gracefully can itself be a goal.

3) Maintain friendships, as a well as a sense of belonging in a community. Even when physical health may decline -or when a disability may set in- mental health can keep a smile on the face. The Internet has greatly facilitated friendships; it used to be that proximity largely determined who our friends would be. Cell phones and email make it easier than ever to maintain distant friendships. Avoid the temptation in this age of wellness to link physical and mental health too closely.

4) Exercise regularly. You knew that advice was coming because physiologists, psychiatrists, and strangers sitting beside us on the plane swear by it.  The consensus should convince you.

5) Hope. Don't stop believing that people and things can get better. Try to avoid being cynical, the failure to give people their due, the inclination to think less of people. Should you find yourself bothered by mistakes in your own past, reinvent yourself. Go somewhere new --if only an Internet community-and become the person you always wanted to be.


Remember as well that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Probably all of us want what we don't have. If we were to become a confidant of William, he might well reveal that he envies George Clooney. For obvious reasons, any man might assume Clooney has it made. For a less obvious reason, putting Clooney up on a pedestal makes good sense. An older role model can help us visualize how we aspire to age, while assuring us that the best is yet to come.

 

John Portmann is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

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