Dear Rachel,

I’m in my mid-fifties and am facing a midlife crisis. I don’t have energy for a lot of the things I used to do, which is robbing me of joy. I feel like my looks are fading, and I’m afraid of becoming like a lot of older women who try to look thirty and end up looking ridiculous. I feel like I’m in a rut and don’t know how to crawl out. Please help.

Growing Old

Dear Growing,

The youth culture of today robs many people of happiness and satisfaction. But only if they let it. Judaism doesn’t worship youth; it venerates the elderly and shows respect to older people. The first step to surviving middle and old age is to switch to a Jewish mindset, The youth culture of today robs many people of happiness and satisfactionwhich has completely different definitions of beauty, self-worth and value to society.

King Solomon wrote, “Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven.”1 There is a time for everything (even age spots), and every age has its beauty. But for some reason, Western culture gets stuck idolizing the decade between 20 and 30. That 1970s advertising slogan is right, though—you’re not getting older, you’re getting better.

I know it’s frustrating to have less energy, but rather than focus on what you can’t do, discover what you can do. You might not be able to keep up at Zumba, but you can take a Pilates or Feldenkrais class. You might not be able to hike the Himalayas, but you can enjoy leisurely walks in the park or nature reserves. The same way we adjust our activity level from ages 7 to 14, we can adjust our activity levels when we get older. You also might want to consider spending more time on intellectual pursuits. Perhaps you can set a goal to master a book of Torah or Tanach with commentaries, or you can start a study partner session with someone.

Many people enjoy more leisurely activities as they age, as opposed to the frenzied activity of their youth. Time spent with grandchildren can be more relaxing and enjoyable than the harried years of childrearing. And studies show that the older you get, the higher your level of satisfaction, as goals become clearer, priorities more defined, and expectations lower. That’s something you can look forward to.

Another problem is that we tend to identify with the younger image of ourselves, when that may no longer be an accurate point of reference. Time and experience shape who we are and what we want, but we often forget to update our own hard drives. It’s important to take inventory every once in a while and make sure we’re living our lives in tandem with who we’ve become.

As for looking young—again, that desire stems from our youth-obsessed culture. The matriarch Sarah was abducted by two monarchs because of her great beauty—the second when she was in her eighties. The Midrash states that Queen Esther was 40, 75 or 80 years old when she was chosen as the most beautiful maiden in the land.2 Miriam led the women of Israel in song when she was 86 years young. Beauty and talent are not limited to age.

The Jewish laws of modesty help de-emphasize our focus on the body, so that we can focus on inner beauty—the Time spent with grandchildren can be more relaxing and enjoyable than the harried years of childrearingbeauty of the heart, mind and soul. I agree with you that it looks ridiculous when older women wear clothes, makeup and hairstyles that befit a 25-year-old. And their attempts to reverse the aging process with plastic surgery or aesthetic treatments usually make them look like, well, women trying to reverse the aging process with plastic surgery.

Age with dignity! Choose clothes, makeup, hairstyles and colors that complement your age without attempting to conceal it. Enjoy your life; a happy glow and a smile will do more to enhance your beauty than any cosmetic treatment. It’s also important to alter your diet and exercise regimen so you stay fit and healthy.

My advice to you (and I can give it because I am over 50) is to accept your age, focus on the benefits of being older and wiser, don’t mourn the past, enjoy the present and look forward to the future. On average, women today live well into their 80s. That means you have a few more decades to enjoy age-appropriately. It should be as unnatural for a 50- or 60-year-old woman to want to be 30 as it is for a 20-year-old to wish she were 5 again. Although youth certainly has its perks, it also has its problems and limitations, which we tend to forget when we look back through the romantic mists of time.

As it says in Desiderata, “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” But don’t stop there; embrace the things of middle and old age.

In Ethics of Our Fathers there is a list of ages and stages, and the fifties are described as a time of counsel.3 One is considered to have garnered enough life experience to dole out advice to others and actually be listened to. As Rabbi Yossi said, “Who is an elder (zakein)? One who acquired (Heb. zeh she-kanah, related to the word zakein) wisdom.”4

I wish you a long life and the wisdom to spend it well.

Rachel