Few if any of us are completely immune to the attractions of eternal youth. Most of us wouldn't mind appearing younger and having the physical energy we did as teenagers. And sooner or later, nearly everyone tries to turn back the clock one way or another with a new diet, a revamped exercise program, a fresh wardrobe, a dye job, or even a little nip-and-tuck here or there. There's nothing wrong with any of these approaches, as long as we keep in mind that they are working on the form of things, rather than its essence.
Aging has inevitable physical manifestations, and it's perfectly natural, especially in contemporary culture, to want to limit those to some degree. But it's a mistake to think that just by making ourselves look younger, we somehow will be more able to stay young and stay connected.
Dave knows this firsthand.
Some years ago, feeling the first real intimations that I wasn't a youngster anymore, I undertook a pretty complete overhaul from the outside in. I bought some new "vintage" outfits, upgraded my CD collection, got new eyeglass frames, and even dyed my hair blond in hopes of connecting more completely with my younger self as well as my younger colleagues, students, and community members. I wouldn't say it was totally unsuccessful; I loved the amazed reactions of the fifth graders I was working with when I showed up with bleached hair, but a few incidents really brought home to me that it's not what's on the outside that enables us to connect across the years; it's what's on the inside.
The first of these is a simple comment made by one of my fifth grade students, a remarkably self-possessed and insightful girl named Sophie. While most of her classmates were shocked and/or delighted by my surfer-dude coiffure, Sophie just looked at me curiously and asked, "Why did you do that? Maybe you think you look younger, but anyone can see it makes you seem so old!"
Of course, she had hit the nail on the head. While my new "do" may have made me appear younger physically, (and that might be debatable, too) it doubtless also—to people with real insight—made me look more like an old guy trying to look young. And nothing makes someone seem older than that.
Second, while appearances can be deceiving, even pleasantly so, they don't really change the reality of the situation. So, when I went out one evening to see a concert by a band popular among kids young enough to be my kids, my bleached blond hair and groovy retro vintage threads didn't change how weird I felt when the band launched into a song advocating the annihilation of baby boomers.
Ultimately, I felt as if I was wasting a lot of my time focusing on the form of things rather than the essence. If I wanted to connect better with young people, instead of trying to look like them or act like them, it made more sense for me to get a clearer idea of what I could offer them.
So, for instance, at that time, I was also teaching a philosophy class to ninth through twelfth grade students at an alternative school-within-a-school program at a large suburban high school. Their interests were quite varied, but they shared a common zeal for challenging the status quo on issues with implications for social and political justice. Many, for instance, were animal rights activists; others held strong views about the enforcement of drug laws; still others had strong convictions about abortion rights. What I was able to offer them, and what they responded quite positively to, was some in-depth analysis of arguments in support of or contrary to their positions. We spent about a month together developing justifications for and against the various views they held. A number of students were quite excited about having better tools to argue for their beliefs. Some students even came to modify their positions as a result of exploring the arguments pro and con.
For the most part, they came to really value the guidance and direction I was able to offer. I felt as if they appreciated me for who I was, not what I looked like; they came to see me as a valuable resource in their ongoing education and development.
Plus, it didn't hurt that I agreed to dye my hair blue if they all completed their assignments on time. They did, and I did, too.