This past weekend I had the privilege of spending Friday through Sunday surrounded by almost 2500 teens from the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. It was the annual youth conference for our archdiocese and it was such a wonderful weekend.
Our church brought 26 high school youth and it was a true joy to become a part of that youthful spirit, all of that energy and love for life! I gave up my weekend, my break from the work week, to sit in a hotel ballroom with a bunch of teenagers. Some people may think that sounds insane, but that’s because they haven’t done it. It’s like 10 shots of adrenaline mixed with some espresso! Their joy and silliness is infectious. I felt like I was back in high school as I was yelling and singing and dancing and passing shoes. I laughed so hard.
It’s amazing how much difference a decade can make when it comes to age. Some of these kids have had very traumatic moments in their life, but (as far as our teens go) none of them are working to support a family, none of them have to worry about rent or medical insurance. Their life is far from worry-free, but they are also far from “adulting”.
Our life experiences might be different, but that isn’t what physically ages us. Physically, there’s not too much different between a youth in their late teens and a young adult in their late 20s. We’ve both passed puberty, but we’re not over the hill. So what is different? What is causing this aging to happen?
There are a number of physical causes of aging, and they all start to accumulate like a snowball rolling down a hill. That is why, often, when we see someone starting to look like they’re aging, it gradually happens but then gets faster and faster. You might have a wrinkle here, a wrinkle there, but then after a certain age it seems like your whole face starts to sag. Since I’m only a decade older than them I only have 1 or 2 gray hairs, whereas someone 20 years older than me might have a full head of silvery locks!
Some of these causes that might start to accumulate over the years are oxidative stress, mutations, aggregation of proteins, loss of protein structure/function, and telomere shortening. Science is working on how to prevent or delay many of these, but in my years of studying science, it seems like telomere shortening is something built into DNA function and I can’t foresee how to stop this throughout the whole human person without dire consequences.
Let me back up. Telomeres are a region of repeating nucleotides on the end of each chromosome.
When a strand of DNA is replicated, these telomeres get shortened each time. This mechanism limits cells from replicating an infinite number of times. This way there are a finite number of cell divisions. This limitation occurs through a number of methods, one being apoptosis (cell death).
There is growing evidence that telomere shortening limits stem cell function, regeneration, and organ maintenance during aging. There have also been studies that show that telomere shortening during aging is associated with an increase in cancer risk.
This weekend really made me feel young, and it brought me back to the passage in the Bible where Jesus tells His disciples that the child-like will get into heaven. “…Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
This passage calls us to become like children. That doesn’t mean getting the latest laser treatment so your skin doesn’t sag. This doesn’t mean finding a way to have infinite cell replication without telomere shortening. The key to heaven is the key I got to briefly hold this weekend. The key is having that joy for life, being kind and loving like we were before this world jaded us and gave us prejudices.
I’m almost thirty, but that doesn’t stop me from being child-like. If I am able to love like a child, then I shall be called the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Now I do not claim that this will be easy. It was easy for my 48-hour stint, but then I came back to my regular life. As adults, it can be easy to get annoyed with young people’s youthfulness, so just hanging out with young people isn’t a sure-fire fix either. We must work every day to find joy and to spread love, love of our God and love of every man and woman around us.
If we can do this, then we shall be child-like and we shall be great.