The cashier's shocking comment about my age sent me into a tailspin.
There used to be a time when wrinkles meant something, when they stood for age and experience – and wisdom.
There used to be a time when older people were respected, venerated even. Am I indulging in the same kind of fantasy parents do when they remark wistfully about the days when kids respected their parents and listened to their every word? Possibly, but I know that before our forefather Yitzchak, there were no signs of aging. No gray hair. No wrinkled skin (no botox, juviderm or threading either!). And he did something for which we are all experiencing the consequences today: he prayed for signs of aging.
Why would he do that? He surely had no design to benefit the multi-billion-dollar plastic surgery industry. He wanted people to get the respect owed them, the admiration earned by years of hard work, through decades of learning and growing.
His assumption was that the older you got, the better you would be treated, the more that younger people would turn to you and benefit from what you have to teach. He surely couldn’t have anticipated the “don’t trust anyone over 30” slogan of the sixties, although I’m sure he would have understood the havoc that attitude would wreak.
All is not lost. There are still individuals and communities that treat the elderly with the appropriate respect and gratitude. I know a family in Los Angeles where a different grandchild flies in every week to make sure their grandmother never spends a Shabbos alone. But it seems to be (mostly) a dying art. And much as I understand and appreciate what Yitzchak was trying to teach, I have to admit I struggle with the lesson. I am not quite at peace with it.
This was brought home to me recently when my husband and I stopped to buy some water at a rest area off the Garden State Parkway. The (young) woman behind the cash register complimented my hair (sheitel!). “I like your hair,” she said. “It makes you look younger.”
This was a somewhat strange comment – younger than what? Younger than who? Since she didn’t know my age to begin with, how could I look younger? Initially flattered, I began to get concerned.
“Do you want me to guess how old you are?” she continued. I really didn’t but she was like a train barreling down the tracks, completely unstoppable. “Seventy-five.”
“Seventy -five!?” my husband I both gasped. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with looking like you’re 75 – when you're 75. And I pray the Almighty gives me the opportunity to find out. But while I’m not 39, 63 still seems younger than 75 and, although my wrinkles are justly earned (maybe more from worrying and anxiety than the wisdom that Yitzchak imagined) I was appalled and shaken by the encounter.
But my distress went deeper than that. Ever since our children were young and complained about mean comments in the schoolyard, my husband had one standard response, “Was that someone whose opinion you cared about?” If not, then it’s obvious we shouldn’t let it bother us. If yes, well that’s a whole different conversation.
Clearly the cashier at the rest stop was not someone whose opinion should have mattered to me. She could have been the kindest, most intelligent human being in the world but I don’t know her and will likely never see her again. So why should it continue to bother me? Why do I get just slightly teary when I retell this story? In fact, why do I even bother retelling it at all?
I guess the answer is that it disturbs me more than I like to acknowledge that despite my sincere yet slightly glib response to my children, it’s not that easy to be completely oblivious to what people think – even total strangers, even about superficial issues over which you have no control.
And I comfort myself that therein lies the reason for the experience, that the Almighty was reminding me in a slightly humorous way (I can’t quite laugh yet but maybe a slight chuckle) that I still need to work on this aspect of my character, that I’m still too concerned about what people think, that my behavior and/or thoughts are still shaped too much by the opinions of others.
Perhaps I wasn’t even aware of it. Perhaps I thought I had (mostly) outgrown this. But a trivial encounter with a complete stranger seems to have proved otherwise.
The circumstances and details of this experience are themselves irrelevant. I didn’t neglect my duty to stand up for Israel or the Jewish people or my relationship with the Almighty – but that’s where the road leads. Once we allow the opinions of others to determine our words and our actions, we start sliding down that proverbial slippery slope.
So I have to gird myself against this. I have to internalize the fundamental idea that only God's opinion of me counts – and I’m guessing He doesn’t notice the lines in my face (although He may not be pleased with all the worry and anxiety that put them there!). That stressing over the opinions of others interferes with our ability to stand up for who we are and what we believe, to live a life based on what’s truly important to us and to have that reflected in our speech and behavior.