Watching my parents get older is a sombre pastime. It’s hard getting acquainted with a greyer, achier, more weathered version of them each year. Both my parents and I have become unconsenting spectators, watching their list of health concerns grow longer and bodies get more tired.
Time seems to move at warp speed the older the three of us get. We don’t tiptoe around the fact, either. Whether we’re digging up old photos of our family taken before my brothers and I knew our times tables, or talking about the dates my parents went on during their own college years, it’s hard not to remark on how fast time flies. Yearning for one’s youth isn’t unique to my parents, I’m sure, but their outlook has brought my own ideas about age and mortality to shore nonetheless.
Aging comes with a slew of changes, responsibilities, hardships, and—if you’re lucky—revelations. Some of these changes begin at the microscopic level of cells and proteins. From a biological standpoint, there is no one theory of aging; in fact, multiple theories of aging are heavily debated. Some scientists believe that our cells are programmed to give out on us eventually. In other words, deterioration is written into our plot from conception. Other theories suggest that aging is simply a result of cellular damage accumulated from being alive一the so-called “wear-and-tear theory.” There’s a lot we still don’t understand, however. None of these hypotheses seem to perfectly explain aging’s unknowns.
Regardless, we know that as cells age, they grow more susceptible to disease, a consequence associated with a build up of DNA damage over time. Mutations in our DNA are typically nothing to worry about: Our cells are constantly replicating, and while the word mutation might have some scary sci-fi connotations, they pop up all the time during normal cell division. Cells are equipped with a well-oiled repair system that works its magic should mutations happen to arise. But as we age, those repairs seem to get less efficient. As a result, damaged DNA can accumulate, leading to increased cell death, or interestingly, cells that are neither dead or able to replicate. Senescent cells (also aptly known as “zombie cells”) are one of the eerie forces we think might be driving tissue aging.
There’s something deeply unsettling about aging. But why? What does it mean to age, past genetic mutations and cells of the undead? Why does any reminder of aging make a pit form in the bottom of my stomach? Such a visceral fear //must// be bigger than a number you celebrate on the same day each year. I don’t bat an eye at the ever-growing integer when it’s plastered everywhere in the form of candles, party decorations, and well-meaning text messages from friends. Instead, what really panics me is the realization that I’m an adult expected to uphold adult responsibilities, figure out my life after graduation, and deal with life’s mundanities.
It might be the lack of control that comes with aging. As someone whose entire psyche gets shaken at the slightest change of plans, this seems like a plausible explanation. It’s easy to feel completely powerless at the hands of time, which is unrelenting and waits for no one.
Or maybe it’s the pressure to “be someone” by the time you’re 25, a burden that so many young people bear. The shackles of hustle culture leave me feeling like life is a race that I’m laughably and miserably losing. At 21, I can’t help but feel incredibly small. Do I have the accomplishments, esteem, or milestones to show for my time on earth? To prove that I’m even worthy of growing older?
This isn’t even to mention that your desirability as a feminine-presenting person declines rapidly with age. Rationally, I know that these beauty standards exist to keep the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry afloat. But a part of my monkey brain can’t help but feel disheartened by the thinning hair on my scalp or panic at the thought of wrinkles making a permanent home on my face. It’s difficult to let go of the notion that youth equals beauty, especially as I’m being thrust into my early 20s. It can feel like at times my youth is running out.
Aging is also an uncomfortable front for the impermanence and fragility of life. Watching my parents’ age slowly catch up to them serves as a blunt reminder that they won’t be here forever––an idea that I couldn’t possibly have recognized as a young child, and was perhaps too blinded by self-absorption and angst to see in my teenage years.
The deeper I pick at my fears of aging, the easier it is to start spiraling out of control. Letting fear take over ends up being counterproductive, but it’s almost impossible to ignore it completely. Much like the competing theories of aging in the scientific community, I can only accept that a single satisfying resolution doesn’t currently exist for me. Maybe regaining control in the face of age and time might be as simple as embracing ambivalence. Watching my loved ones age can induce anxiety and make me hyper-aware of our impermanence. But it also makes me appreciate the time we have together that much more. With each tick of the clock, I am reminded of our finitude, and in turn, our humanity.
Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor