When the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon set sail in the eighteenth century to voyage across South America in search of the fabled fountain of youth, he was continuing one of humanity’s most ancient quests. Since prehistoric times, witches and sorcerers employed talismans and minerals and rendered potions from roots, herbs and flowers in the hope of maintaining youth and extending the natural span of human life.
This traditional obsession was echoed by the travelling purveyors of snake oil and other nostrums and medicines, who travelled the length and breadth of Western civilization in search of suckers. Today, it seems this obsession with youth, this fear of aging and death, is stronger than ever. Practically every lifestyle, health and fashion magazine claims to have the secret to perpetual youth and vigour.
Ponce de Leon’s magical waters have been replaced by its modern day equivalents – power yoga classes, pilates, diet, vitamin supplements, make-up, cosmetic surgery, and a host of pharmaceutical products.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to remain healthy and active throughout life. It is hard not to have the sense, though, that this cultural and all-pervasive obsession with longevity and youth is somehow a denial of the natural arc of human life. Why is it that we seem to have such a difficult time accepting that lines and wrinkles are something to be proud of? They are, after all, badges of honour – evidence of our age and experience and (hopefully) the wisdom that comes from it.
When I look back on the life that I have lived to this point, I am constantly humbled by the awareness that there is so much that I don’t know, and by the immensity of all that there is to learn. At the same time, though, I would not want to turn the clock back to the days of my youth. I have had had so many truly wonderful experiences. I have also lived through times of great pain. I have suffered embarrassments and humiliations, and basked in glorious triumphs.
Above all, I have shared many magical and transcendent moments with friends and with people I love. Each one of these experiences has left a mark on my brain and my soul that I would not willingly erase for the sake of some illusion of youth. The same goes for the marks, sags and wrinkles that a well-lived life has left upon my face and body. All of our physical and emotional imperfections are part of who we are, part of the story of our lives. They are our identity. An identity that only becomes richer, more complex, more interesting, and more beautiful with each passing year.