02/07/2011 09:02 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Age: What Do You See?

I am 67-years-old. And I am an Elder to many in my various "networks."

Not many people in this day and age are willing to make such a declaration about their age... or are proud to be recognized as elders outside their communities. The word elder tends to be automatically heard as being either given to those who are "elderly" and frail, or to those who have some recognized status among a group of people for a specific kind of contribution. My ideas about who an Elder is and what they can contribute in these times started to take shape a few years ago, when I reached a "fork in the road" age-wise. That's when I founded The Eldering Institute® and began looking at ways to shift the cultural conversation we have about aging.

For over 30 years, I had been observing an intriguing phenomenon. Most adults I had ever spoken to about age agreed: they feel a lot younger than they imagined they would feel like at whatever age they are. But many who were in their late 40s and older shared that there is also a moment, usually in middle age, when they experienced a total, almost shocking disconnect between what they saw in the mirror and what they experienced in their mind. A moment when they realized that their body had aged... and their sense of who they were hadn't. I think this phenomenon, and the degree to which we experience this disconnect, reveals our resistance to aging (at best) and our outright denial (at worst).

For some, this kind of "fork in the road" occurs more than once in a lifetime. When I was a teenager, I felt older inside than my biological age, and ended up wrestling with my own and other people's perceptions of me as being "too young." I don't recall thinking about my "age" again at all until I reached my early 50s. And then it was to realize that my body and my self-perception were out of sync again.

We can easily end up spending the last half of our lives wrestling with the paradox of "How old I am isn't how old I feel!" I believe this internal conversation about "How old I am" versus "How old I feel" serves a purpose: it keeps us more and more in our minds and less and less in our bodies. This living in our minds leads to a variety of aging stereotypes like living in the past (where we're preoccupied with our memories) or the future (where we're preoccupied with dying or whatever we believe is next). This past or future focus definitely blocks us from living in the present... just plain old "being alive."

I don't know many people who, if they had a choice, would choose to be the age they are. Not that they are suffering with their age, but they view "age" as a circumstance that happens to them and believe the best they can do is cope, rationalize, resist or ultimately resign themselves to it and all the cultural baggage that goes with it.

What would it take to see age as simply a fact -- a piece of trivia having no more or less meaning than a number?

We don't normally view our age as an interpretation -- but in actual fact, it's simply a value we have placed on the number of times our planet has rotated on its axis while we have been experiencing life.

Age is just a conversation.

Age is so close to us -- what is closer than our bodies changing? -- that we often cannot see it.

What would the second half of our lives look like if we were totally integrated and our age-based feelings were a "non-conversation?" What if thoughts about age as a circumstance that we have to deal with simply never came to mind? Perhaps we'd never think about how old we are. Or, more likely, we would love every moment of living -- without regard to age. We might also conceive of the second half of life as being about ever-increasing possibilities, satisfaction and abundance, rather than, as is often the case, about gradual decline and isolation.

We might even enjoy this amazing gift of time we have been granted... and be proud to become Elders.

So what do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?