Iâ€™m in my 50â€™s and the looks are basically gone. A picture of a young man and his dog sits on the mantle (one that was taken during my modeling years) but new friends canâ€™t believe itâ€™s me, and will often gasp and tell me what a handsome man I once was or make a statement about how heartbreaking aging is. Friends I havenâ€™t seen in years barely recognize me. Itâ€™s not that Iâ€™m ugly yet, they say, it just that I look like someone else, someone who is heavier, and who has thinning hair and shifting contours. My long-standing lover died several years ago, and there is little chance of finding another partner, because I am no longer attractive. Intellectually, I see my depression about all of this as shallow, but emotionally I feel dispirited about it. I know that this is something that nearly everyone who life to old age goes through, and is usually grateful to do, and some do it cheerfully and gracefully. I would like to as well, but so far Iâ€™m not having much success.
I keep this letter, which I received some time ago, as a cautionary message that highlights the crucial importance of developing values, while weâ€™re still young, that transcend our cultureâ€™s obsession with youth. The writer believes heâ€™ll never find love again â€śbecause I am no longer attractive.â€ť In other words, only youthful good looks make people lovable, and once you lose them, youâ€™ll never be loved again. If that is true, then any gay man fortunate (?) enough to survive past 45 or so is destined to live the last decades of his life as a lonely, pathetic Aging Queen. What a vision of life! If that is how things are, then it does make sense to say â€śDie young and leave a beautiful corpse!â€ť
Itâ€™s not that the writerâ€™s feelings make no sense at all. As we enter the late afternoon of life, feel our bodies beginning to slow down, and notice that weâ€™re getting less attention from guys than we used to, itâ€™s natural to go through a mourning process for our lost youth. Weâ€™d all prefer not to get older, and learning to let go of youth and accept aging is a challenging task for anyone. But that doesnâ€™t mean that despair and hopelessness are the only possible responses, or that weâ€™re all doomed to end our lives in loneliness and depression.
In psychologist Erik Eriksonâ€™s eight-stage schema of human development, middle and late adulthood are the time of â€śgenerativityâ€ť â€“when values of productive work, creativity, service to the community, and spirituality begin to become guiding values. This is the period of life when wisdom and genuinely altruistic love are most likely to blossom and when we become the elders of our communities. Erikson believes that the earlier stages of life are necessarily somewhat self-centered. Our tasks as young people are to develop stable identities and egos, find our places in the world, and work at forming intimate connections with others. But by about the age of 40, while all these things remain important, the work of creating a stable self has (hopefully) been largely completed, and energy is freed up to devote to concern for the welfare of others and the larger community. But for this maturation to occur, we really need to learn, while weâ€™re still young, to honor and respect values of service, loyalty, commitment, productivity, and community. In order to mature, we have to see maturity as valuable.
Those whose values mature along with our bodies donâ€™t find themselves lonely and unloved as they age, because the values of generativity have a natural appeal to the human heart. And the kind of maturity that makes aging livable is not the rare event that some people seem to think it is. One comprehensive study of older gay men found that they were not more likely to be lonely or isolated than younger gay men; usually had many friends; that they dated and had relationships; and active sex lives. Almost 75 percent were content with the quality of their lives.
Among my own circle of friends I know many who began new romantic partnerships after the age of 45. I, myself, at 57, find myself today in a new and exciting romantic and sexual partnership. Even in our youth-obsessed culture there are plenty of people who see more to love in others than youthful appearance. Not everyone is as shallow as we fear. My personal experience has taught me that there is no need to face getting older with dread and despair. Our illusions and fears about it cause us far more suffering than our actual experience of it.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.