Our body cells are continually replaced.
On average, the cells of your body are replaced every 7 to 10 years. But those numbers hide a huge variability in lifespan across the different organs of the body.
Neutrophil cells (a type of white blood cell) might only last two days, while the cells in the middle of your eye lenses will last your entire life.
At a recent gathering of people introducing themselves to each other, a matronly woman with short gray hair pulled out her cellphone and showed us all a picture of herself as a long-haired redhead, perhaps in her 20s.
“I had copper-red hair,” she explained. What she didn’t need to say is she was quite a looker, in her twenties and young and frisky.
As we all were at one time. But it is not who I am now.
When I went back for my fiftieth high school reunion, I quickly encountered identities I had shed long ago. I checked in, briefly, at a table of 60-something-year-old men in the hotel bar They were probably classmates, but I didn’t recognize anyone, so I thought I’d wait for the reception when we were all wearing name tags.
“Was that Sharon?” I later heard one ask.
“Did she have long blonde hair?”
“You mean the preacher’s daughter?” I haven’t had long blonde hair or been the preachers’ daughter in…fifty years.
My granddaughter visibly changes almost weekly. She is two, and while her infant’s face, blue eyes, and smile are readily discernable in the toddler’s gaze, she isn’t an infant. She will, we hope, be a child and teen and young adult and still be recognizable, be the same delightful person and be someone totally different.
She has more in common with other toddlers right now, as I do with other boomers. Yet we are linked by lineage in ways that allow me to see the faces of her ancestors and allow us to enjoy each other’s company.
So why do so many of my peers show the old picture on their cell phones?’Or we hear of someone with beginning frailties or memory loss that “they are not who they used to be.”
No, we are who we are now. That’s the magic and mystery of personhood.
This, t seems to me, is the heart of aging– we both are and are not the same person, across our life span, whether two or ninety-two. Even physically, our cells mostly change over so we have few body parts that are original. If eye lenses are some of our oldest cells, many of us have even changed them out for newly installed lenses through high technology laser surgery.
And yet, and yet… we all have thought to ourselves that an old acquaintance has changed too much or is not who they used to be.
I comforted family members dealing with a loved one taken over by dementia or by drugs and alcohol. It did seem a stranger inhabited their bodies. It “was the disease talking” and not them. The twinning paranoia of either condition changed how the person interacted with those who loved them most. (One documentary on addiction is Bill Moyers’ The Hijacked Brain.)
On a recent trip to Mexico, one of our presenters, an ex-pat, was talking about the cultural differences of living as a resident in Mexico. She stated that an unanticipated benefit was people interacted and were friends across ages, that there wasn’t the age stratification (and stigmas) she experienced in the U.S.
I do confess to a little weariness about the ageism discussion.
At all stages of life, we have to deal with preconceptions based on aspects of who we are, and yes stereotypes are applied to various generations, and some of them are true.
It is quite possible, for example, to speak about the need for younger, new leadership. New leadership is needed in many of our institutions when the head (CEO, elected official) are still our seniors, and some are not performing very well. (This is not intended to be a blanket indictment of older leaders, and there are plenty of young idiots.)
I left my last job when I recognized I had neither the technological skill to handle matters as well as some staff I was supervising nor the desire to learn new applications all over again.
I’ve been on-call all hours. I’m done.
Writing and reading these posts reminds me I can laugh at the transitions we’re making. Not everything is funny, but humor helps lighten the load.
By the way, I asked the former redhead if she had any of the traits that go with red hair. Redheads can have higher pain tolerance and may need larger doses of anesthesia to remain sedated.
As a redhead in early childhood, I carry these traits and this recessive gene. She responded affirmatively. The redhead traits remain despite hair color changes, natural and otherwise.
So like red hair, we are and we are not who we were. The mystery of personhood. Perhaps the best prescription is an old prescription:
Be here now.