The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. McCarthy

Brace yourself, good reader. My subject is once again mortality. If you’re frowning right now, all the better. I have before me a brochure for Botox cosmetic treatment, which claims to “smooth the deep, persistent lines between your brows that developed over time.” I love metaphor, and everything I read about Botox screams metaphor. Botox itself doesn’t interest me; the reason people seek it does. But more than that, what does it mean to want to rid ourselves of the ability to furrow our brow? And what image does an unwrinkled middle-aged brow project?

 

My family and I just celebrated my sister’s 50th birthday, an occasion steeped in reminiscence, nostalgia and, for me, opportunity to observe how we’ve all changed with age. There was much talk of “growing old gracefully,” but I’m still stuck on what it means to grow old. Everyone knows that one’s notion of “old” is constantly shifting the older one gets. When we’re 10, 18 is grown-up and 40 is old. Now in my 40’s, I have taught 22-year old college students who I swear are less grown-up than I was at 10, but who no doubt regard me as old.

Most of us sail through a certain period of life with the sense that we’re basically the same as we were at 20. Along comes that proverbial day—at 36 or 40 or 45—when we look in the mirror and see a change that we can attribute only to age. Thus begins the middle phase of life, in which aging is no longer a physiological and demographic factoid: now it’s personal. From that point on, a heightened mindfulness becomes the two-edged sword we carry through life: every activity is rife with significance, every sidelong glance in the mirror tinged with wistful self-awareness. Mostly we push it away, this prospective mourning, but in time it becomes an importunate companion ever on the fringes of consciousness.

That I love the phrase “youth is wasted on the young” is a sure sign of my middle age. But then, once you’re no longer young, doesn’t everything seem wasted on the young? Youth is all about shortsightedness and ignorance and having a purely theoretical knowledge of what it means to grow old. To be ageless, therefore, would be somehow to erase experience and return to a time when time seemed endless, when birthdays made you feel not older but more adult and made you look ahead excitedly rather than meditatively.

By the time we realize we’ve grown up into fully fledged adults, we soon come to understand that being grown-up means having grown out of our youth. This, of course, is one of the ironies that most define our life on earth: we spend a good portion of the first half of our life trying to look, and wishing we were, older than we are, and most of the second half trying to look, and wishing we were, younger than we are.

This twisted phenomenon is to no small degree cultural rather than innate. (Why do five-year-old girls play with Barbies?) Which brings me back to Botox. Imagine a world devoid of furrowed brows. Whose idea of youth is that? It seems to me that would merely exacerbate one’s frustration with one’s condition: unable to demonstrate expression, one’s life would become one undifferentiated, frown-free moment. This marks a significant loss, since one of the prerogatives of age is to show disdain and disapproval without caring what others think. Botox—which claims to last “up to four months”—reduces facial expression to a generic placidity, or vapidity, suggesting what I can only guess is a greater desire for the illusion of agelessness than for authenticity of expression.

But since we’re all in the same boat, who is to say that the vast anti-aging industry in this country—the one that offers not merely wrinkle-free faces and all kinds of antibiotics, vaccines, makeup and plastic surgery, but also the promise of biotechnology that can slow, halt or actually reverse aging—is headed in the wrong direction? Does growing old gracefully preclude one from taking reasonable steps toward growing old youthfully? If the goal is to look and feel good about oneself and to counteract the effects of an aging body, is there a qualitative difference between having Botox injections and going to the gym? I fight aging as fiercely and assiduously—and self-consciously—as anyone. I want to stay young so that I can be physically active; Cher tries to look young so that she can be socially active. Are we so different?

As I try to recover my dignity—and distract my readers—after that last analogy, it occurs to me that just as surely as youth is meant to be heedless, middle age is not. The wrinkles just above our eyes signify the vision not granted us in youth; to erase them is to turn one’s back on the only species of wisdom most of us will ever possess: time. I’m brought back to the image of my sister at her 50th birthday party: chasing after her carefree little granddaughter, whom she’s helping to raise. Having endured more than her share of trials and anxiety, she hasn’t eradicated the wrinkles but channeled them into ever more meaningful acts of courage and love. Now there’s an image of ageless beauty.

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