If we were all to look like that it would be like living in Barbie Land as depicted in the latest blockbuster movie “Barbie”. The film is about the plastic dolls of that name which were popular in the 1960. Surprisingly it has captured the imagination of some theological commentators. It’s amusing, well-acted and has a serious message – about feminism and patriarchy but also about what it means to be human.
Life in Barbie Land is rather perfect, no ageing or dying. All, no matter what their size, shape or colour are between 15 and 35 years old and even those with disabilities are “in the pink of health”. But one day stereotypical Barbie asks a question about death, to the shock and consternation of the rest. The real world is breaking through. Barbie has cellulite and her arched foot which fits comfortably into her high heels has fallen and is flat. There is a tear in Barbie Land caused by someone who has played with Barbie in a fearful and angry way and the tear can only be healed by Barbie going into the world and helping this individual. In this sense Barbie become a saviour figure. The real world is not at all what she expects, and she must struggle against patriarchy to save the person who is disturbing the perfection of Barbie Land and who turns out to be an adult, not a child as Barbie had anticipated.
There is one scene in the film that relates to our theme. Barbie sits on a bench beside an old woman. Like the Buddha when he emerged from seclusion this was her first experience of old age but unlike the Buddha, she doesn’t want to escape from it. Rather she tells the woman that she is beautiful, and, in the end, Barbie chooses real life with all its imperfections rather than the perfect unreality of Barbie Land. Perhaps this scene touched me because I will soon celebrate a significant birthday, one which sets me firmly within the realm of old age. It’s a sobering thought to be entering a decade in which statistically I’m likely to die. Life, old age, and death have, not surprisingly, been on my mind. I’m glad to be old and see old age as a gift with its own challenges and possibilities. I’ve had a good life which has had its joys and sorrows, its elation and heart break, its successes and failures, its struggles and periods of calm, all of which has been a gift and helped me become the person I am. Would I have wanted it any other way? Certainly not. It’s the highs and lows that give life its sense of adventure and challenge us all to discover what it means to be human. Much better than wanting to be young forever.
For me this adventure has been lived within the context of religious life which has drastically changed over the 50 years or so I’ve been a member. The old institutional aspects have gone- a strict regime, a uniform dress, large convents and to the outsider it might seem as though my life is not much different from any single woman. But I still live my life within the context of three vows – poverty which means that I own nothing of my own but share all with my community; obedience which means discerning how I might serve other people and chastity which means that the focus of my commitment is to that Reality which is the Source of Life and Love and which we might call God. Religious Life is a journey that has given me much and taught me much. There has been the opportunity of companionship with some amazing, strong and committed women; sisters who have supported me and hopefully whom I have supported as we shared space and time for reflection and discernment as well as holidays and recreation; retreats that have given me opportunities to explore my inner self and face up to the contradictions, emotions, motivations that lie behind the veil of my ego; training in prayer and mindfulness; courses and educational opportunities that have challenged my presuppositions; a ministry in teaching and interfaith relations that has given me a sense of purpose and a sense of contributing to the Kingdom of God. And in all this meeting, working with and walking with some marvellous men and women who have inspired and encouraged me throughout this journey. And the journey will go on – there is more to learn, more to experience, more to discover – even in old age. I cannot but think that Bryan Johnson will have a very impoverished life if he doesn’t embrace it in all its fullness. Maturing in mind, body and spirit is a great adventure.