My friend — I'll call her Ruth — was luxuriating, swimming across a friend's New England pond on a beautiful summer day. At some point, she noticed that she was propelling herself across the water with the breaststroke. "Yuck," she thought, "here I am swimming like an old lady." Ruth, who recently turned 70 and retired from an influential professional position, suddenly found her delight had turned to disgust.
I heard recently about another woman, whom we'll call Ellen, who was musing about her fear of growing old. "Time is slipping away," she said. "It's like a roll of toilet paper that gets smaller and smaller and turns faster and faster, and then it will be gone and I'll die."
These women are afraid of being old. They are not alone. The Shema Koleinu (hear our voice) prayer, which we recite over and over on Yom Kippur, eloquently and soulfully articulates our fears about aging:
"Do not forsake us,
Do not take your holy spirit from us.
Do not forsake us when we grow old,
When our strength fails, do not abandon us."
We are terrified of aging. We fear we will be ignored, that we will be demeaned, that we will be abandoned.
In the Shema Koleinu prayer, we express our fears about how we will be treated by other people, and by God, when we are old. We worry that we will be bereft of love, care, companionship and inspiration.
But the experiences of Ruth and Ellen reveal that we actually inflict these evils on ourselves as we face our own aging. As soon as we see ourselves as old, or even older, we are convinced we are unworthy of love, and we do not take ourselves seriously. We actually abandon ourselves!
We have unwittingly absorbed the ageism that pervades our society. We have been convinced by hundreds of commercials touting "anti-aging" or "age-defying" products that age is a blight to be hidden or defeated. We have absorbed political rhetoric reviling recipients of Medicare as "greedy geezers." We have swallowed the stereotype that old means dead — devoid of vitality, idealism and passion.
No wonder we want to cover our wrinkles, no wonder we worry about asking for help. No wonder we give our friends birthday cards with truly mean messages that reinforce the idea that, upon reaching a certain age, you become silly, pathetic or useless. No wonder we too often tell ourselves that we are "too old" for — fill in the blank.
We are displaying internalized ageism, rejecting our own worth simply because of our stage of life. The scourge of self-loathing is tremendously costly. It steals our potential for affirming our lives and the blessings in them. It paralyzes us and prevents us from becoming who we can yet be. It deprives our families and communities of the contributions we can make — both through sharing the stories and wisdom we've accrued and through sharing our gifts in the here and now.
On a communal level, dread of aging prevents us from tapping and caring for those who should be precious, the fastest growing group among us, those over 60.
Our tradition offers us a counterweight to the ageism we have absorbed. A beautiful midrash teaches that before Abraham, there was no old age. Poor Abraham was frustrated that when he walked down the street with his son, Isaac, no special treatment was accorded him. He pleaded with God, "crown me with wrinkles and gray hair," that he might receive deference in accordance with his accrued experience.
For the rabbis, age was a source of pride, and elders were deserving of deference and honor. Why can't we retrieve that affirming view?
Toward the end of Shema Koleinu, we pray, "Make with us a sign of Your goodness." May those who are old become a sign of hope, a model of resilience for all of us. May we accept age, and embrace aging. May we hear our own voices, and those of all the elders among us.
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, the author of Jewish Visions for Aging, has devoted her rabbinate to uncovering the blessings of aging. She offers spiritual guidance, training and consulting through Growing Older www.growingolder.com.