Wednesday, August 4, 2010

It's the Mileage, Baby, It's the Mileage

After a certain age, every man is responsible for his face. ~ Albert Camus

Superficially, it starts around age 13, when enough testosterone has entered the circulation to stimulate the growth of facial hair. Our parents begin dropping hints that the baby hair that has clung stubbornly to our cheeks is starting to look more like stubble. Next thing you know, a razor has found its way into the pile of presents at birthdays or Christmas.

I remember my first razor. It was a Remington cordless that was so heavy, shaving felt like a work-out. My dad used a blade and I was concerned an electric seemed somehow less manly, but he assured me it was the best way to begin. Later on, when my beard had turned into a rough approximation of industrial grade sandpaper, I could graduate to Schick or Gilette.

As much as shaving represents a rite of passage, I'm inclined to think Camus had something else in mind. It probably varies from person to person, but there definitely comes a point when a man has to recognize he's primarily responsible for the person he has become. We can blame our parents or their errors in judgment only so long and then it's time to admit we might have made different choices. And the ones we've made eventually carve their initials onto our faces for all the world to see.

"You're not the man I remember," said Marion, as she wiped the blood from Indiana's shoulder.

"It's not the years, baby, it's the mileage," he responded.

You probably recognize this exchange from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though intended to provide comic relief, it speaks loudly and clearly to the issue. Experience leaves a mark. It wasn't just gravity that tugged at dad's forehead and the skin beneath his eyes, it was raising a family, paying a mortgage, and perhaps the pain from chronic arthritis that he said little or nothing about. It was also the joy and hope he felt and refused to allow anything to interfere with.

The way we perceive life, its fairness or injustice, the losses we've incurred, exerts such an influence that even in silence, a stranger can tell we've been down a hard road. You see it a lot in detox units where faces are lined as deeply as newly plowed ground. Lack of care, lack of resources, too much alcohol, and too little love make people old before their time.

We can't choose our genes and we can't alter our heritage, but we can determine to some extent the kinds of experiences we're going to wear and present to the world. The mileage is going to accumulate, one way or another, but it doesn't have to represent frustrated ambitions, resentment, or regret. Instead, it ought to reflect maturity and character, a willingness to embrace life rather than flee from it. And it's never too early -- or too late -- to start.

(Creative Commons image by miss ohara via Flickr)

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