It is hardly a secret that the Western world has a bit of a fixation with youth and beauty. Indeed (as I just discovered while researching this piece), google ‘Western ob’, and the search engine immediately autocompletes to ‘Western obsession with youth’. At any fifty year old’s birthday party, it seems obligatory not only to tell them over and over again that they don’t look a day over 25, but for them to reassure the gathered throng that they do not feel a day over 25. As though the quarter century of lived experience and knowledge hard-earned gained in between should count for absolutely nothing.
When we do acknowledge age in popular culture (which more commonly ‘youthwashes’ the world it presents for popular consumption), it is usually framed within plaudits about the relative ‘youthfulness’ of the ageing celebrity in question. Madonna, Helen Mirren, Twiggy – they’re all persistently praised not for their achievements or their talent, but for how well they’ve managed to fend off nature.
It was not always thus. Not so very long ago (almost within living memory, in fact!), age was considered a great gift, to pursue avidly. While people hoped that they’d remain healthy as they aged, they certainly did not wish to remain young per se in the way that modern people do. In an era in which many died young, age was considered a precious thing – and the experience which comes with age was greatly prized. While not considered ‘beautiful’, perhaps, wrinkles and so forth were often seen as a sign of wisdom, rather than (as today) a sign of being ‘over the hill’. Professor Robert Harrison, who has made a study of the cultural associations of age, notes that our society is the first in which the old seek to emulate the young, rather than vice versa. This gives us a somewhat skewed and one-sided view of the human condition, which expresses itself in a myriad of unhealthy ways – not least of which concerns our attitude to death.
It has been said that we think of death as the Victorians thought of sex. We now roll our eyes at the prudish Victorians and their refusal to acknowledge or speak about the perfectly natural facts of sex and sexuality. We recoil when we realize that the Victorian outlets for this natural human drive were furtive, never-spoken-about forays into bizarre fetishes and the brutalization of prostitutes.
Yet we display precisely the same kind of attitude towards death. Life is all we can openly acknowledge. When someone tries to take their own life, we are often more concerned about preserving their heartbeat than we are about delving a bit deeper into their drive towards death (and perhaps, thus, improving the life we’re so desperate to ‘save’).
We never speak about death if we can possibly avoid it, we take pains to avert our eyes from it in ‘real life’, we promote life almost fanatically – and yet we, too, ‘fetishize’ death just as the Victorians did with sex. In a million violent movies and ‘torture porn’ productions, we see death painted in colors just as lurid as any Victorian brothel. Death is as natural as sex – perhaps more so, for it comes to us all, while many live sexless lives – yet we utterly refuse to acknowledge it in anything other than fetishistic fictions. The Victorians had no such qualms about death. And nor did most of the societies which have come before our own.
The ‘circle of life’ we talk about so eagerly would be nothing but a semicircle without death. Every other society but our own has known this. Perhaps this is because death used to be a far more visible presence in everyday life than it is today. Bizarrely, in a society obsessed with youth, more and more of us are living into what would once have been considered extreme old age. Simultaneously, natural disasters and terrorism cause widespread death. But we rarely ‘see’ death with our own eyes like we used to.
Just as the high birthrate of the Victorian era seemed entirely at odds with their refusal to acknowledge sex, our own ageing population and violent times seem completely out of sync with our obsession with youth and beauty. Perhaps every society wants what it cannot have. Our early-dying ancestors sought old age, while we seek youth and life. Problematically, however, it is profoundly unnatural to be eternally young and to live forever. Our failure to acknowledge ageing and death results in a basic failure to cope when things don’t go as vibrantly and well as we would like.
It makes us unprepared to deal with the ‘harsher’ side of the human condition. It renders us totally nonplussed in the face of hardship, ugliness, and actual death. Getting through the ‘shadowy’ times is how we learn. Our ancestors knew this. If you made it through illness, war, plague, childbirth, and all the myriad dangers of life, then you emerged as a wise and experienced elder. Without acknowledging death and all of its side of the circle (including making mistakes, and getting things wrong from time to time), we fail to learn. With age comes wisdom. And death is the teacher who bestows it upon us.