Age cannot wither us

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Age cannot wither us

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good thinking · Tuesday 15 Dec 2015
Tags: Relationshipsandageing
A mosquito or something like it took me for a free lunch on Saturday night, leaving three lumps on the right side of my face. I might feel disfigured, but I suspect like most people, much as though I’d like to think I had such beauty to be marred, the reality is a little less exciting.

Age doesn’t help of course. It’s another common aspect of human experience, that we can look out on the world through the same (old) eyes and think we’re not much changed, until we catch sight of our reflection and are forced to acknowledge that, really we have.

This might not be the end of the world (that will come later). A female friend told me a few years ago, when we were both in our early 40s, that she thought young people had a glowing beauty which was unique to youth. Another remarked in a separate conversation that young faces had a blandness which made them uninteresting. Both statements seem true to me, though I’d always want to stand against the cultural fascism which seems to think that only those under 40 could be emotionally interesting for any audience.

Mid-life crises
Middle-aged men don’t help the situation, apparently needing to ratify their illusions of an enduring youthfulness by partnering with much younger women, as if women of their own age could no longer make them feel good about themselves. I’ve even heard it argued that once women hit the menopause they no longer have the hormonal capability to attract the Darwinian male. Men who think this way must have egos that are stronger than their sex drives, or they just don’t get out enough.

Women paradoxically don’t help these sad male illusions by privileging “personality” defensively over good looks. It seems too that the enduring puritanism of the 19th and 20th centuries still urges many women to play down their sexuality, as if it was something best minimised (while I think it’s entirely reasonable for any individual to have little interest in his or her sexuality, it seems to me there is no fundamental difference between men and women here, and any apparent differences have been culturally conditioned). Male sexism also sustains these guarded feelings, and it’s about time we all grew up.

Thinking fast and slow
So far, so conventionally liberal, but there is too an uncomfortable “fundamental” truth that we need to acknowledge, which is that good looks are influential, at any age. There has been some academic research which suggests that better looking individuals have better chances in job interviews. While this is clearly wrong in the sense that our looks have little bearing on our capacity to do a job, it’s more understandable when an interviewer or interview panel is faced with a 50/50 choice (all other things being equal).

I said it’s understandable rather than particularly defensible, but then we need to understand it better, because this appears to be a compelling aspect of human behaviour. This blog was prompted in part by a reflection from Alain de Botton on why we marry the wrong people, which among other things noted how important the way someone looks might be to our judgements. He’s not suggesting that matinee idol allure will overrule every other consideration, but noting how much we will extrapolate from features which (for whatever reason) we might find compelling. This chimes too with Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about our predilection for instinctive judgement, and how it might lead us astray.

I’m not suggesting that good looking idiots will continue to command our attention when they open their mouths, but only that in the many greyer areas before we’re faced with idiocy we generally give more credit than we should to the physically attractive.

We can’t simply discount these intuitions. We won’t begin to discard them by saying “appearances don’t matter”. We’ll only deal with them if we can notice how and when they operate in our own judgements. We’ll only deal with it too by acknowledging how and when superficial judgements are all we need. Prejudices about appearance can feed the snap judgements we make all the time, but that speed can be necessary to make the most of the limited time we have available. It’s wrong to demand that we consider the full humanity of every individual we encounter. Much of the time those encounters are simply functional, and while I’d agree that our default behaviour should always be at least polite and considerate, we usually don’t need to look much beyond the function (getting your hair cut, or a cup of coffee). Prejudice about appearances may well be operating in these encounters, but it doesn’t matter very much. It’s when we need to make finer or better judgements that we must look further.

Enduring love
Shakespeare as so often got there first. This blog’s title is from Antony and Cleopatra, that fine tragedy of two middle-aged people caught in a doting dotage. In a famous speech Enobarbus say of Cleopatra “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”.

He’s not talking about the persistence of her famed physical beauty, but of the traits that make her captivating. Not least among the many prejudices that can skew our judgements we need to be open to the possibility that all people, including older people, have a vitality we can usefully attend to and value.

Talking of Shakespeare, de Botton’s chapter on marriage falls into a common error, suggesting that our more romantic ideas about the possibility of a lifelong coupling only appeared somewhere in the mid-18th century, as part of the rise of Romanticism. But there’s plenty of evidence against this, not least Romeo and Juliet (or Much Ado, As You Like It, Twelfth Night or indeed Othello, all written in the late 16th or early 17th centuries). It’s quite true to say that through most of western history marriage has been primarily a commercial or dynastic contract, but certainly since at least the Roman republic there have always been parallel narratives of emotional love.

de Botton’s right that our immediate feelings, shot through with the neuroses we carry from our childhoods, make a poor basis for such an important judgement about our future, but maybe the real answer is to dial down the importance of that judgement, to accept that we will almost certainly get it wrong, and there may be no other way to come to understand the neuroses and primal attractions that drive our judgements than to go through this process of trial and error.

If that’s the case, the best we can do socially is ensure that we minimise the pain of the fallout, equitably for both partners as well as any children. As individuals all we can do is learn from our mistakes, sometimes called the wisdom of age. Sadly I’m not sure the older are always much wiser, but at least their persisting beauty may be a little less superficial.

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