Celebrate getting older

We live in a society that seems to value youth (although not necessarily young people!). A fortune is spent on various ways of trying to make us look and feel younger. Whether or not that is money well spent is questionable, of course. Is it mainly another way of consumer capitalism getting us to spend our money? Well, it certainly fits with the idea that, if you want to make a lot of money, sell people things that they have to keep coming back for more of.

Trying to hold back ageing is like Canute trying to hold back the tide. Wouldn’t it make far more sense to just accept that every day we create a new yesterday and therefore have one less tomorrow? Is it ageing we fear and want to fend off or is it death? Or perhaps it is both? Fearing ageing reflects to a large extent our ageist society that devalues old age. Even though people are often much happier and settled in old age than in earlier life, old age tends to get stereotyped as a time of infirmity and inability. The reality, of course, is far more complex than this and, while there are clearly problems and challenges associated with old age, we hear far less about the pleasures and the achievements of old age.

Ageing is part of living, and so if we are afraid of ageing, we are afraid of living. And perhaps that is where the fear of death comes in. The idea that we live in a ‘death-denying’ society is not a new one. This again reflects our tendency to value youth so highly. And this is a pity, of course, because trying to pretend that death is not part of life is a pretty fruitless undertaking. It means living a lie and, more than that, losing out on the benefits of valuing our days, of making something of our time – as time, in the end, is all we have. Knowing that life is finite can help us treasure the time we do have, rather than fritter it away under the illusion (delusion?) that we are immortal.

Some people oversimplify this message. They try to work on the basis that you should live every day as if it your last. ‘Try’ is the key word here because, of course, you can’t live that way. Partying every day, making no plans for the future, living as if there is no tomorrow is not a recipe for quality of life. You will soon find yourself in considerable difficulties if you take this simplistic advice seriously.

What is much wiser, of course, is to be realistic. Accept that ageing is part of living and don’t let ageist stereotypes fool you into thinking that only younger people can be happy, productive, vibrant and living worthwhile lives. Ageism is, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, as a society, we devalue ageing and older people, we create discrimination and make old age a less positive time of life, which then fuels the ageist stereotype that ageing is something to fear (hence the futile attempts to defy ageing through all sorts of pills and potions). Futile for the people buying them, but lucrative for the people selling them.

Sadly, a lot of people never reach old age. What this means is that we should celebrate getting older, because every day that we get older is a day that we have lived. The alternative to ageing is, of course, not one to be recommended. If we are constantly trying to hold back the flow of time, then we are not appreciating that time – we are wasting precious moments. Old age is supposed to be a time of wisdom, but perhaps we need the wisdom sooner than that to realise that worshipping youth is a mug’s game.

Security is the ability to cope with insecurity

It is quite common for people to be rated according to how secure they are, especially people who are perceived to be low on any such rating scale – that is, people who are viewed as ‘insecure’. But what does it mean to refer to someone as ‘insecure’? Or as ‘secure’, for that matter?

The world is a very insecure place, in the sense that, as the old saying goes, the only certainties are death and taxes. No one knows what is going to happen next. Our lives could potentially be turned upside down at any moment, with horrendous consequences. Disaster could be just round the corner.

But it probably isn’t.

Yes, it is true that many people will face disaster every day, but then there will be literally billions who do not. So, it is important to get things in perspective. We are constantly surrounded by risk. Some form of danger is ever-present. But most of the time, in most situations, we are quite safe. No one is ever going to be totally safe in all situations. The technical terms for this are ‘contingency’ and ‘flux’. Contingency means there are no guarantees – things can change at any moment (for the better or for the worse). Flux means that things are constantly changing, albeit generally at a very gradual pace. But what do these technical terms mean in practice?

Contingency means that we can’t be 100% sure that things will go according to plan. So, we need a Plan B; we need to take account of ‘contingencies’. Depending on how important and/or complex the circumstances are, we might also need a Plan C at times. Flux means that we need to be ready to adapt to change – an attitude that assumes that the way things are now is the way they will always be is one that will set us up for heartache sooner or later.

This does not mean that we should go to the opposite extreme and start panicking or over-reacting. While we don’t have much by the way of certainty to go by in our lives, probability is a very helpful friend and ally. And, just as change is all around us, so too is continuity. Indeed, change and continuity can be understood as two sides of the same coin.

So, what is called for is a balanced approach to risk – one that is realistic about the dangers we face, but also manages to keep anxiety in check. People who tend to be described as ‘insecure’ are generally the ones who focus more on the risks and less on the wider context. There is therefore a tendency to adopt a distorted approach, one that overemphasizes the dangers and thereby creates unnecessary anxiety. And, of course, anxiety has a nasty habit of creating a vicious circle in which it makes people more sensitive to risk (‘risk averse’ to use the technical term), and that it turn generates more anxiety.

So, what it boils down to, in a sense, is that a genuine feeling of security comes from being well equipped to deal with the very insecurity of life – avoiding the two extremes of being complacent about potential threats to our well-being, on the one hand, and being overanxious and over-reacting to such threats on the other. This calls for a calm and careful consideration of the risks we commonly face. What can also be useful is a degree of self-awareness, a degree of insight into how effective we are in balancing our sense of danger and ours sense of safety – in other words, how realistic we are in assessing the risks we face.