Once upon a time a woman came in for marriage counseling who had cheated on her husband.  “I wanted to be more youthful,” she explained.   As a full-time mother with several children, she felt she was growing old too fast.  In an attempt to capture her youth, she decided upon an affair.

My immediate question was about her desire to be “youthful.”  What did “youthful” mean, and why did she think cheating would make her “youthful”?  She equated youth with beauty and beauty with being sexually desirable.  These are common misconceptions.  The plastic surgery center I pass every time I leave my neighborhood calls itself “Youthful Medical Spa.”  The title insinuates that a face lift or a tummy tuck will bring back one’s youth.  Equating youth with beauty, however, leads us off-track when exploring what it means to feel youthful.

Not a Care in the World

Recently I saw a middle-aged man riding his beach bike down the street with his back erect, and no inclination to hold on to the handle bars.  “He looks like a kid,” I thought to myself.  His graying temples did nothing to derail my assessment.  He truly reminded me of someone without a care in the world.

Free-of-care would certainly describe a young person more accurately than it would most adults.  Beautiful or not, young people seldom worry about a mortgage, a job, taxes, a homeowners association or health care.  (If they do worry about such things we consider them “mature beyond their years” or “grown up too soon.”)

I wondered if being carefree would help me feel younger, so I tried an experiment one Saturday.  After working half-a-day in the yard with my husband, I persuaded the workhorse to take a break.  “Let’s play the rest of the day,” I suggested.  “We can finish our work another time.”  After a short protest he climbed down from his ladder.  “Okay, why don’t we go on a bike ride?” he proposed.  Recalling the man riding his bike with no hands, I eagerly agreed and we decided to ride our bikes to the beach.

We donned our swim suits and our flip flops and in 15 minutes we were digging our toes in the sand.  I felt more care free than I had when I actually was young.  Twenty years ago when I wanted to go to the beach I had to pack water bottles, and plastic shovels, a beach umbrella, and snacks.  Before we even left the house I had to lather up the kids with sun screen, and search for four pair of flip flops.  While at the beach I would be on constant alert, counting the heads bobbing in the ocean or tripping in the waves.  Our mini-van had to be thoroughly vacuumed the next day and sand swept from every hard surface in the house.  Whew!  I felt way more carefree with my grey hair and wrinkles than I ever had when my hair was brown and my skin smooth.

Perhaps being carefree was something my client was looking for.  Perhaps the responsibilities of parenthood were overwhelming her.  Perhaps she was tired of packing up the diaper bags and the sand pails.  Perhaps all she needed was a good babysitter so she could ride her beach cruiser without holding onto the handlebars.

Take a Risk

The balancing bike rider demonstrates another well documented factor of youth: young people tend to be greater risk-takers.  It is the young who are willing to scale sheer canyon walls and sleep on a portaledge.  Generally, it is the young who will attempt an air raley on a wakeboard,  jumps on snowboard, or hair-pin turns on a mountain bike.

Young people, who have never endured serious injury, will be far more prone to risk-taking ventures.  With age comes experience which inevitably teaches us caution.  Not only do we become more aware of our mortality as we age, our bodies frequently won’t allow us to take the risks young people take.  Our reaction-time decreases.  Our muscles deteriorate.  Our stamina wanes.  We can’t pretend to compete with young people physically, anymore than we can pretend we don’t have wrinkles and age spots.  This does not mean we can never take risks.

Risks taken, along with the caution of experience, can be highly rewarding.  For example, while hiking a water fall in Costa Rica I lost my footing, came down hard on a rock and broke two toes.  Since then I have been super conscientious about wearing shoes at all times, to say nothing about hiking waterfalls barefoot.  Although it’s not necessary to take risks like those taken in my pre-injury days, it would be intensely pleasurable to take off those shoes and dangle my feet in the cold puddles at the bottom of the falls.

When we combine a little adventure with our knowledge of what can happen when we venture too far, we can enjoy the best of youth and wisdom.  In the movie City of Angels the protagonist looses her life while being carefree and risk-taking.  She rides her bike down a road with her eyes closed and her hands extended wide enough to embrace the endless air.  She fails to see an oncoming truck, which cannot stop soon enough to avoid hitting her.  In our attempts to be youthful we can experience the thrill of riding with no hands, as long as we also remember to keep our eyes open.

Beauty is Over-Rated

Since Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth turned out to be just a delightful fresh water spring, we are forced to live with the fact that we all grow older.  As hard as the cosmetics companies (and the plastic surgeons) work to make us look young, they can’t make us feel youthful.   Being youthful is about more than how we look.

Society deceives us into thinking youth is beauty and it is beauty that makes us desirable sexual partners.  A confused adult could easily believe the converse: that if she were a desirable sexual partner it meant she was beautiful, and if she was beautiful, that meant she was youthful.

When we recognize that beauty is more than skin deep, and sexual desirability is dependent on far more than looks we can avoid the despair caused by a society that seems to worship the young.  Rather than seeking for youth in all the wrong places, enlightened individuals will be content to grow old with an aging spouse, and together live happily ever after.

JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of UnSteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, available at www.amazon.com.