Remember in Bambi how much of a wimp Bambi was as a young buck? Compared to his father, the king of the forest, he was still just a whelp, even though technically a fully grown deer. His father, on the other hand, was a fully mature stag, quite literally an embodiment of the spirit of the forest. How often do we see out own parents that way: at the peak of their power, rather than in decline?
Our popular image of aging is one of decline, to the point that the elderly are treated like incompetents. What is even worse is that the idea of decline in old age is internalized by those who are aging, with the result that reaching your thirtieth birthday is seen as the beginning of the long, slow slide into decrepitude. We accept the fact that we will get weaker, slower, sicker, and duller. The result is that we subconsciously move in that direction; as people pass thirty, they stop exercising and they stop learning. The basically assure their own decline because they think it is inevitable.
While I’ve never really advocated this view of aging, and have in fact argued vehemently against it (in an article I wrote for Spartan Race), it occurred to me that we only subscribe to this view of aging when it comes to humans (and perhaps domestic pets).
If you look at the view in nature, younger animals tend to be weaker, less experienced, and more frail than their fully mature counterparts.
For example, look at deer.
The term young buck refers to an adult who overestimates his abilities. Young male deer rarely get to mate, are smaller and weaker than their more mature counterparts, and are generally less impressive animals. This trend is common in nature, where the older animals get all the mating opportunities, get to eat first, and lead their groups. Wolf packs are led by the oldest members of the family (the alpha males and females). The same goes for lions, who compete for dominance, with older males and females holding the leadership roles in most cases. By older, I mean an animal at the equivalent age as a human in his forties. Elephant matriarchs can lead their herds for decades, and the dominant males are usually in their forties and fifties.
Of course, after a certain age, there is a decline when the young animals can finally hope to contest the leadership, but it is pretty advanced. Generally, if you could make it past your young adult years as a deer or a wolf, you got to be the big-shot. Since us humans don’t have to worry about predators, there is really no reason we should actually decline as we age.
We make such a big deal about the twenties as the peak of our physical and mental conditions, but in reality this period of life more correctly corresponds to the beginning of really coming into our own. Most people in their twenties haven’t even begun to realize their potential, and yet we have this idea that it’s all downhill after thirty.
NASA prefers their astronauts in their forties, because that is the peak of the intersection of physical and mental development.
So instead of thinking of aging as a process of decline, I like to think of it as a process of maturing. I intend to get stronger throughout my life, to develop freakishly acute abilities of mental perception and analysis, and to generally have the ability to put young whipper-snappers in their place well into my golden years.
After all, I have my father’s example to look to. He started running seriously in his sixties, trained up to a marathon (which we ran together) and is seeing his times drop every month. He is teaching himself how to write iOS apps and is active in new business ventures. He is also frustratingly good at arguing and somehow remembers things I say and do long after I’ve forgotten them.