The fear of aging is a normal response to the impermanence of life. We fear aging because it imbues our lives with transience, fragility, and perishability. The end of aging is the impenetrable mystery of our own disappearance. To experience the fear of aging is to encounter something greater than ourselves, something that is too broad and expansive for us to grasp or control.
Fear becomes destructive when we become ensnared in persistent feelings of insecurity and anxiety. In the midst of fear, we are prey to various forms of negativism including avoidance, dismissiveness, rejection, criticism, and prejudice. Our fears about aging can become a source of pain and suffering in that they encourage a turning away from the truth about our own life.
The denial of aging is a denial of life. When we neglect our fears about aging, we risk placing yourselves into contradiction with the true nature of our existence in the here and now. In the end, the truth of impermanence cannot be avoided. Regardless of the variations in our religious and spiritual beliefs, we can all have absolute faith in the natural cycles of transience that imbue the entire planet with life. The dread of aging, or the fear of becoming old, represents a failure to adapt to a fierce truth from which there is no retreat.
Fear cannot be destroyed; there is no such thing as a completely fearless state. Courage cannot exist in the absence of fear. We do not “combat” or “fight” with fear. In other words, fear is not an enemy. Fear befriends us in the sense that it challenges us to look directly at that which we turn away from. It offers consolation in the midst of difficult personal change that is often uncomfortable, distressing, and unwelcome. And finally, fear initiates a deep conversation with the very source and essence of our own vulnerabilities. To journey into our fears that surround aging is to journey into the heart of the human condition.
Our fear of aging is remarkably diverse in its expression. We might think about the fear of aging is an underlying ground in life that gives rise to a plethora of disparaging and dark themes including dependence, isolation, loneliness, vulnerability, frailty, poverty, elder abuse, ageism, loss, loss of mobility, decline of the senses, exile, chronic disease, and lack of purpose.
Fear is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon. A core discipline of aging is to become mindful of our fears and to learn to turn directly toward them when they do arise. Mindful aging is a way to give ourselves a chance to move through our fears and vulnerabilities, to begin a conversation with them, in order to broaden and expand the experience of being alive.
Like the pilgrim walking across an undiscovered frontier in search of a new land, we must also embark on a journey into the terrain of our fear of aging in order to renew ourselves and discover new ground.
Fear on the Inside
Normal aging, or senescence, means that our body will gradually deteriorate over an unknown amount of time until it is no longer able to support our life.
The effects of normal aging become more pronounced during the second half of life when we notice changes in the appearance and resilience of our body. We know with absolute certainty that the age-related changes we are experiencing are inevitable, unavoidable, and entirely out of our control. In addition, we also know the end result with absolute certainty. How can we build a relationship with something that provides no room for negotiation?
Aging is the most intimate and profound form of change in the human condition. Every breath we take is infused with the subtle progression of senescence deep within the body. The breath you just took is a pure and authentic expression of aging and an essential connection to the natural flow of life. Breath is the true space of humility and belonging.
In the midst of our youth we are filled with the hopes and dreams “growing up” into adulthood. The experience of aging in our youth is animated by a sense of broadening and expanding of our independence. To “grow up” is to attain adulthood and a steady movement toward self-reliance. Youthful exuberance can entrance us in the illusion of a boundless and limitless future.
The second half of life can be thought of as a period of time when we are no longer “young,” but is a period of “growing out,” that is to say, a continual broadening and expansion of our presence in the world. However, it is also a period of time that can be hijacked by the fear of becoming old. As our body begins its retreat and return to the earth, the feeling of impermanence may express itself as internal dread. In other words, in contrast to our youth, aging morphs into a source of angst and rumination.
Fear is a remarkably skilled and agile shape-shifter. The fear of aging assumes many shapes and appearances, but in every form it is ultimately a source of pain and suffering. To fear aging is quite literally to be afraid of ourselves. There is no experience of being alive in which aging is absent. In this sense, aging is truth and to live in fear of the inevitable consequences of being alive is to place ourselves in angst-ridden contradiction to reality.
There are a number of common and recurring fears associated with aging in the second half of life. Fear is not concerned with making us feel comfortable; it encourages us to move deeper into life by wounding us with discomfort. As unsettling and painful as it feels, every experience of fear opens up an unknown terrain to explore, an essential conversation to become engaged in, and a potent opportunity to broaden and cultivate the feeling of being alive.
The loss of independence is a fear commonly associated with our later years in life. As frailty intensifies, mobility decreases. This means that our familiar range of action and activity begins to retreat. A decline in our autonomy permanently alters the ways we can and can no longer interact with the world around us. The loss of independence can easily translate into the fear of dependence, isolation, and loneliness.
As our physical resilience begins to decline, we begin to notice that it takes longer to recover from set-backs caused by injury or illness. Since our immune system becomes weathered by the effects of aging, we may also experience an increase in the occurrence of illness and injury as we get older. We are required to become more intimate with the experience of pain and frailty as we get older.
Inevitably, chronic age-related disease begins to influence our everyday life, and we become aware of aches and pains that reach us from the deep undercurrents of life. The harsh reality is that aging is not and never can be a painless process; there is suffering that we must endure and learn from that is inherent in the experience of being alive.
As we get older, we may also feel the desire of “what used to be” more acutely. Memories can become a source of suffering when we torture ourselves by wanting them to actually be our reality in the here and now. Reminiscence is a powerful dimension of the imagination that can greatly enhance our life. However, a strong desire for the “good old days” places us into contradiction with the reality of the present moment and invites neurosis. Our experience of aging can ignite fear in the form of holding on to that which can no longer be.
Fears related to aging are perfectly natural and normal, but they do not serve to define or even characterize what aging in the second half of life means. If we approach our fear of aging through avoidance, dismissiveness, rejection, negativism, distraction, stereotyping, and prejudice, then we do ourselves a great disservice. Dealing with fear through negativism, pessimism, and cynicism will only serve to catapult us into a conflict that we have already lost because the enemy we are battling against is staring back at us in the mirror.
The denial of aging is one of the most deeply-rooted and virulent problems we face today.
The Fear that Surrounds Us
Our collective fear of aging thrives in our media, institutions, health-care systems, economy, and systems of government. In a certain sense, the collective denial of aging has become the unfortunate medium of economic progress and cultural development.
Our collective fear of aging often expresses itself as a toxic obsession with the facade of youth. The commercial marketing of anti-aging is built upon a platform of denial subversively and despicably marketed as beauty. It presents “growing old” as a problem to be solved, delayed, avoided, and hidden by encouraging a delusional pursuit of youthful appearances in order to make a profit. In this sense, the commercial anti-aging industry expresses a dramatic failure to adapt to the truth about our existence here; it is a stark expression of cultural neurosis.
Fear will often attempt to turn us into something that we are not. Anti-aging pretends to extend the facade of youth by delaying the natural progression of aging. It has turned something as simple as a wrinkle into a problem to be solved as well as an embarrassment to be covered up and hidden. We have become so busy pursuing false appearances that illusions and false hope have become a transient source of reality.
We desperately cling to the false hope of youth as if it could provide relief from our angst about old age. Anti-aging is an industry of misleading appearances, of manufacturing a fragile visual facade of something we are not and cannot be. It seems that more and more people are choosing to become disfigured and plasticized by facial reconstruction in an attempt to appear younger than they are. Sadly, these are the same faces that become living symbols and advertisements of our fear and denial of aging.
Youth has no claim on beauty; beauty has no preference for youth.
Another particularly virulent fear of aging is expressed as ageism, which is a form of prejudice based on a person’s age. The dark, insecure narrative of ageism characterizes the natural and normal process of growing older as a form of weakness, ugliness, and inconvenience. In this sense, the anti-aging industry is a child of ageism; prejudice makes anti-aging possible.
Ageism reveals a remarkable failure to perceive beauty. We have confused beauty with fashion and glamour. The drone of advertising and marketing make a false and irrelevant claim on beauty. Beauty does not subscribe to superficial facades and shallow appearances. We are not more or less beautiful by virtue of our age, the clothes we fashion, or the make-up we display.
Real beauty is fierce, courageous, and imaginative.
The medicalization of old age has sterilized the natural experience of death and dying. The dying have become marginalized and largely rendered invisible. Medical science tends to view death as a failure; we strive to medically extend life at all costs. It is strange to recognize that doctors are rarely skilled in providing meaningful end-of-life care. Medical care seems to be obsessed with extending the duration of life at all costs, without regard for the quality of life being experienced.
The process of dying sometimes becomes cruelly extended through medical intervention. The issues of assisted suicide and the right to die offer a meaningful counterpoint to the obsessive extension of life through artificial means. Emergent organizations and initiatives such as The Death Cafe seems to be inspiring meaningful conversation about death and dying.
Death is a potent source of fear, and therefore a remarkable opportunity for personal growth.
Our growing senior population is sometimes cast as an “economic burden” or economic problem to be solved. This is a very strange and cruel way to characterize our journey into old age. An aging population is not a problem to be solved; it is an opportunity to embrace our humanity and wisdom. It is our attachment to an economy bent on consumption, commodification, and materialism that is that is the source of our most serious social and cultural problems. Even on a well-defined path of collective destruction, we fear change.
In an important sense, modern culture remains maladapted to the reality and influence of an aging population. It is not merely a matter of adjusting our institutions in a reactive manner. Our real cultural task is to create a meaning grammar of aging that creates the possibility of saying things we did not know could be said.
Moving Through Fear
It is strange to find ourselves experiencing something called life for an uncertain amount of time.
A core discipline of aging is to become mindful of our fears of becoming older and eventually dying. A great deal of attention has been given to the early stages of development in life during our youth. But an unfamiliar and uncertain terrain reveals itself in the second half of life that is far more mysterious, elusive, and uncertain than anything we have ever come face to face with.
The fear of aging originates in contradiction. That is to say, to fear aging is to fear being alive. A precondition of being alive is that we will age and eventually perish. What we are really afraid of is the truth of our own existence.
In the end, it is not the presence of fear that is the challenge. The real challenge is whether or not we can adapt to our own vulnerabilities. We cannot eliminate fear; being fearless in the face of aging is not a meaningful goal. The presence of fear is normal; to experience fear about aging is natural. It is our response that matters. Our task is to turn around and courageously walk toward it – as frightening and humbling as it may feel.