I heard a fact today. The scientific world who has just discovered that human’s capacity for both sympathy and empathy increases as we age. I would like to say I read this fact, but the truth is that I heard it on the Today Show, because I have turned in to one of those women who watches about 25 minutes of the Today Show or Good Morning America while loading and unloading the dishwasher in the morning, after dropping off the kids, and before throwing in a load of laundry and taking a quick shower and going about my day. I have turned into my mother. But whatever. She was great. Anyway, the study and resulting discovery were discussed in the surprised, awe-filled tones usually reserved for a major scientific breakthrough, and I kept thinking I’d missed something. They were not talking about a discovery of a nutrient that prevents cancer, or of a daily habit that makes us live decades longer, it was simply one study that suggested that, as we age, our capacity for compassion increases. I stood there, scraping a plate of uneaten scrambled eggs into the sink, thinking (and I don’t like this expression, but) well, duh…
Years ago, I taught high school, and was sometimes mistaken for one of the students. Their mothers seemed old to me, or, at least, formidable, simply because they had kids, they had life-experience, they had cool clothes and husbands and knew what they wanted in life. I did not. But I had flawless skin, and was mistaken for a teen-ager, and in a world that values youth above all else, I had currency. I worked in a school where most of the faculty was over fifty, and knew much more than I about the world and teaching. But they also had poochy tummies bags under their eyes and big mortgages and grown children with problems. I had none of those things, and I had a small waist and my whole life ahead of me. I was twenty-eight, and forty seemed old.
James Thurber said that women deserve to have more than twelve years between the ages of 28 and 40. It does seem too short. Such a short time between when you are young enough to be mistaken for one of the students, and when you are old enough to be one of their parents. Between the time when you have no wrinkles, cannot even imagine having them or where they’d be, and the time when you spend $38 on a one-ounce bottle of something promising to fill the deep gashes around your lips, where apparently you smiled too often. Between the time when you saw older women with skinny, spindly legs and flabby, puffy stomachs stuffed into their comfort-waist pants and thought how did they get that way? and the time when you stand in front of a mirror and suck your tummy in but it puffs out anyway, despite the crunches and the diet, and you think it begins. Twelve years. You’re young and then: poof! You’re buying Activia and you’re tired by 9:30.
But here’s the thing: I have things now that those other, older women must have had when I was younger, but I couldn’t see. A currency I didn’t know about. More compassion, the study says, and I know this to be true because when I was in my twenties and heard about someone else’s problems, I would think, oh, bummer for you, that really stinks. I would like to say I was a better person than that, but I wasn’t: I was busy and tired and preoccupied. Now, when I hear about other people’s problems, my heart aches for them and I think what can I do to help? If possible, I actually do it. Here are some other things I have more of: more happiness than I used to feel when I see a smiling baby or a sunset or a nest of bright blue eggs. More excitement than I used feel over small things, like knowing the kids will all be home Friday night and we can make chili and play games in front of the fire, or watch a movie together. More pleasure than I used to feel when I smell baking bread or see the first crocus of spring or feel the sun on my face after a long winter. I think it comes down to joy; our capacity for joy must decrease a little after childhood, but then increase aftern age forty. I’m sure somebody will study this at some point and then confirm what we already know.
Yesterday was my forty-second-and-a-half birthday. When I washed my face, I looked a little longer than usual in the mirror at that person who has been looking back at me for four decades. I didn’t think man, I look great! I didn’t think gosh, I look terrible! And I didn’t think wow, look at all those lines, the big nose, the slightly sagging upper eye… I just thought, Hello. S’up? Good to see you. I guess that’s the difference: not that I care more or that I’ve stopped caring, but that my main reaction is sort of a happy-to-be-here moment. Like when you see an old friend, you might notice that she’s getting gray hair or looks a little heavier through the middle, but it doesn’t affect your affection for her. Mainly you just think Hi! So good to see you! A little rush of endorphins, because she knows you so well, and you can’t wait to see what happens.