On Aging Well

Food for Thought

My wife likes to eat crabs on her late grandfather’s birthday because he loved his crabs. John was a jovial man who could play a perfect Santa Claus. He was “comfortable in his own skin,” so to speak, even though his “skin” wasn’t exactly a model of perfection.

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of Japanese films. Since I left Japan over 30 years ago, I haven’t watched many. Strangely, the actors who appeared in my youth looked like they aged 30 years overnight. Some aged well, while others didn’t.

But, what do we mean by “aging well”?

Among the people I know, some didn’t age well even though I was sure they would, and the opposite is true for others. It’s a fascinating phenomenon because it doesn’t seem so subjective when I speak to others about it.

Ultimately, we are all actors. The roles we were given at birth were arbitrary. I was born as a Japanese boy in an upper-middle-class family in the late ’60s. This brief description of my role is already very specific, vastly different from, say, a white girl born in rural Texas to a struggling single mother in 2000. It is a miracle that we come to accept them as who we are.

In our teens and twenties, many of us rejected the roles we were assigned, or at least we tried. As we age, one way or another, we accept our given roles. The art of acting is in this struggle. Those who happened to love the roles they were given at birth do not appreciate this art and live in their narcissism forever, like an actor who can only play one character.

As we age, our roles change too. Some Hollywood actors fail to accept the new roles and try desperately to play the roles of their youth forever. This is particularly common in the West, where we believe our “true” selves should not change. That is, there is an immutable self acting in different roles. In Japan, where there is no concept of an unchanging self (always context-dependent), adapting to new roles is easier, which may be one of the reasons there is more respect for older people.

In this sense, being comfortable in one’s own skin isn’t a passive act of acceptance but an active choice of playing that role artfully.