Most all of us worry about aging, especially in how it affects our bodies. We worry about wrinkles, bags under our eyes, middle-age fat, and losing hair where we want it only to find it on places where we don’t want it. So every now and then, when we look in a mirror or see a recent photograph of ourselves, we are shocked at our own faces and bodies, almost not recognizing ourselves as we see an old face and old body where we are used to seeing a young one.
But examining ourselves for signs of aging isn’t a bad practice, except that we should be looking for things other than wrinkles, loose skin, hair loss, and weight gain. With these bodily things, nature eventually has its way. Where we should be looking for signs of aging is in our eyes. It’s there where the real signs of aging and senility reveal themselves.
If we were to set up a mirror and stare straight into our own eyes, what would we see? Are our eyes tired, unenthusiastic, cynical, lifeless, dead? Do they radiate mostly anger and jealousy? Is there any fire there? Are they so deadened as to be incapable of being surprised? Have they lost their innocence? Is there still a child buried somewhere behind them?
The real signs of senility are betrayed by the eyes, not the body. Loose skin merely reveals that we are aging physically, nothing more. Bodies age and die in a process as inevitable and natural as the changing of the seasons, but dead eyes signify a more deadly senility, something less natural — a fatigued spirit. Spirits are meant to be forever young, forever childlike, forever innocent. They are not meant to deaden and die. But they can die through a lack of passion, through the illusion of familiarity, through a loss of innocence and wonder, through a fatigue of the spirit, and through practical despair.
Despair is a curious thing. Mostly we despair not because we grow weary of the shortcomings and sufferings in life and, at last, find life too much to take. Rather, we despair for the opposite reason, namely, we grow cynical of joy. Joy lies in experiencing life as fresh, as novel, as primal, as a child does, with a certain purity of spirit. This type of joy is not pleasure, though there’s pleasure in it. Pleasure, of course, can be had without joy, but that kind of pleasure is the product of a lack of wonder and reverence in experiencing. That kind of pleasure is initially experienced as a victory, as a throwing off of naiveté, as liberation; but it soon turns into defeat, into dullness, boredom, and a deadened eros. Our palate loses its itch for tasting. Our enthusiasm dies and a certain fatigue of the soul sets in. There is nothing left in us that’s fresh and young, and our eyes begin to show this. They lose their sparkle, their childlikeness.
In her poignant novel Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence describes her heroine, a despairing lady named Hagar, looking into a mirror and saying to herself: “I stood for a long time, looking, wondering how a person could change so much . . . So gradually it happens. The face — a brown and leathery face that wasn’t mine. Only the eyes were mine, staring as though to pierce the lying glass and get beneath to some true image, infinitely distant.”
A good look in the mirror for most of us, sadly, reveals much the same — a lifeless face that’s not really ours and dull eyes, our own, but hidden beneath a lying glass. Somewhere the fire has gone out; our eyes and face are devoid of wonder and innocence.
What’s to be done? We need to take a good long look at ourselves in a mirror and study our eyes, long and hard, and let what we see shock us enough to move us toward the road of unlearning, of post-sophistication, of wonder, or renewed innocence. Here’s the counsel: go to mirror and stare into your eyes long enough until you see there again the boy or girl who once inhabited that space. In that, wonder will be born, a sparkle will return and, with it, a freshness that can make you young again.
Our eyes don’t grow tired, rather, they get buried. That’s what causes the blank, passionless stare. Bodies tire, but eyes are windows to the soul and they are forever eager to see. One of the contrasts between Christianity and Buddhism has to do with the eyes. The Buddhist saint is always depicted with his or her eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek, harmonious body, but his or her eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The Christian saint’s body is wasted to the bone, but his or her eyes are alive, hungry, staring. The Buddhist’s eyes are focused inwardness. The Christian’s eyes are staring outward, hungry, full of wonder.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.