Oct/Nov 2011 Salon

An Elders Manifesto

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Who would have thought old age would be such a riot of strong feeling? We look like dried-up fruit, most of us, past our sell-by date, too juiceless to be up to anything more than maintaining our precarious vital signs. Who would guess that inside these parched exteriors torrents of emotion are rushing like spring floods?

I assumed I was an aberration, a freak, a grotesque exception to the general deceleration that seemed synonymous with advancing years. If I found myself sobbing from intense feeling generated by music that used to make me feel merely exalted, I figured I'd better keep it to myself lest someone try to diagnose and medicate me—though I wasn't sure that wasn't what actually should be done. When I fell in love—it could be a toddler or puppy as easily as a human being, a sudden pang as startling as my first kiss a lifetime earlier—I scarcely recognized this "I" as the same one I knew 20 or even ten years ago.

Add in other emotions—anger, fear—and you have a cauldron a mile deep bubbling just below the surface of my consciousness.

But it's not just intensity. There's a difference of kind. The feelings are complex and subtle to the point of amounting to something not experienced before. That first kiss in the hallway of my teenage girlfriend was intoxicating, stupefying. But what I call "falling in love" now seems to be experienced by a different kind of being, before a gray thing that merely crawled, plodding along horizontally, now multi-colored and winged. Where did he come from?

I can't believe I'm alone. I think other old people are feeling what I feel and keep it to themselves. And I suspect they're doing so partly out of shame: It's disgraceful, even pathological, to experience such intensity at our age. When was the last time you saw two flabby, wrinkled bodies coupling in a movie? Intensity is the provenance of youth, a scandal in the old.

If you notice us at all, you see us standing, not quite steadily, on line at the supermarket, perhaps looking a bit overwhelmed, or stopping on the sidewalk to catch our breath—looking scarcely sensible, never mind living at a pitch some people take illegal drugs to achieve. If you see us holding hands in public, you wonder what sort of ember could glow in bodies as wasted as ours.

The worst of it is not that younger people do not realize what we are. It's that we ourselves don't appreciate and value it. No one holds us in greater contempt than our own kind. We call each other old fools. We not only don't value our enhanced sensitivity, we accept its medicalization and cooperate with trying to dope it out of existence. We do indeed fall into genuine depression, with all the dysfunctionality that involves. How could we not? Is depression not appropriate to someone no one values, a mere burden to family and society in general? And we do turn into husks, old fools, even demented old fools. How could we do otherwise—excepting the sturdy minority who see through the cruel game and manage to maintain some sense of self-worth?

The old live in a gulag of benign neglect. It's not a very different mentality from the one African Americans have to overcome if they are to realize something better than the degraded image they have interiorized as a result of centuries of oppression. Very few of us can maintain a positive view of ourselves when the rest of the world sees us as without worth, a drain on society's resources, even a threat to our fellow citizens. To ask them to see us not only as equal but as people who experience life in a heightened and more complex way than our younger neighbors is like asking them to unlearn everything they have been taught about the old, and to willingly pay a deference to us that is... well, un-American.

But deference is due not just as a matter of respect but of recognition, not for past service or longevity achieved, as if life were a long-distance run only the hardiest complete, but for who we are and for what the rest of our fellow human beings may hope to become. Old age isn't a blighted land we should aspire to for the sake of the few feeble pleasures left to the doddering wrecks who make it there. It's a holy grail of heightened sensitivity, enhanced perception, and yes, wisdom—the long view that is the specialty of the old. Or, it would be all this if we treated the old as we deserve to be treated, assuming of course we valued these mature qualities anything like we do raw emotion and blunt, uncomplicated experience.

I don't mean to denigrate youth. It has its own value and compensations. But why limit ourselves to one- or two-act lives, when the third act makes all the suffering in the first two worth the waiting for, for audience and actors alike? It's as if we throw away the script at the very point the main characters are coming to realize, enjoy, and share all the eloquence, insight and poetry they've endured the first two thirds of the play to acquire.

Instead, we "put down" our old they way we do sick animals. We don't kill them outright and humanely as we would a dog or cat. We marginalize and trivialize them, all the while spending billions of dollars to keep them alive, sometimes in agony, not because we value them for what they are or would be if we had any notion of the treasures we have in them, but out of guilt and sentimentality. We love old grandma, but we don't take her seriously, and as a result neither does she. She probably knows on some level what's going on inside her, but she doesn't acknowledge it, perhaps not even to herself. Or if she does, it's with a sad realization that what she feels and knows is irrelevant and useless even to those who love her.

The reason why what she knows and feels is irrelevant is largely because her bent, arthritic form seems too improbable a vessel for high poetry. Besides, she talks of nothing but her aches and pains, is irascible and/or suffocatingly grandmotherly. The only privilege she claims is the right to criticize and complain non-stop—unless she's tiptoeing around like a ghost already, afraid to get in anyone's way and end up in a nursing home bound to a wheelchair and drooling on herself.

We teach our children about the bad governments that exile, imprison, or "liquidate" their dissidents and other undesirables, but we eliminate our own in less obvious but more effective ways. Where we send them, very few return to tell any tales, and they pass on from this life not as mangled corpses or starved skeletons, but with no expense spared for their medical care and, finally, with teary eulogies and full religious rites.

But instead of being shunned, ignored, or not recognized in the first place, the sensitivity and wisdom of the old could be shared. We could enrich everyone else in ways difficult to imagine—difficult because as a society that never fully grows up, never progresses beyond an extended adolescence, what value can there be to maturity, to a life that represents the acme of what it means to be human? How can we value something we can't even see, never mind experience... until it's too late and we end up in the gulag ourselves, ashamed of the powers a more civilized society would cherish rather than discard or discount as pathology? Just as we can't expect to recognize alien life forms not made from the same stuff we are, our old pass among us like unseen extraterrestrials, visible only as worn-out shells of something more substantial they used to be.

It's a cliché that we are a youth-obsessed culture. But I wonder if we even know what that means if we don't know anything but youth and never progress beyond the mentality of adolescence. Even those of us who bemoan our youth-worship don't seem to see any alternative, and we ask that more attention be paid to older people largely on grounds that the old deserve our respect for what they used to be, not for what they are.

The very young cannot be expected to understand what it means to be adult. When we are still children, we sense a very different order of experience in grown-ups, not just enhanced powers of physical strength and greater social privilege, and look forward to adulthood the way a religious candidate looks forward to the higher consciousness or mystical state of the fully initiated. We are usually disappointed when we find ourselves physically matured and nothing so dramatic has occurred. Disappointment yields to acceptance, which in most cases means taking advantage of all the privileges of adulthood—the freedom and material acquisitions—without further hope of becoming something more in any significant way. In fact, we come to view the future as a period of inevitable decline—diminished physical ability, reduced mental capacity, fewer material possessions—a gradual fading from our fullest years to a pitiable shadow of what we used to be. We see no gain, no promise of a transformation such as the one we thought we should reach when we passed from child to adult.

Why should we see such a promise? Few of us realized anything like that sea change when we entered the ranks of adulthood. Our view of old age hardly offers even that chimera. Adulthood had at least a promising appearance, with its bloom of physical maturity and the privileges that come with it. But what are the advantages of aging beyond the prime years, however much we may push back the expiration date of their lease? Physical decline, degenerative illness, a slow morphing into something unsightly and undesirable (not so slow for women who are devastated by menopause), senility, and then death. Not much to aspire to there. And if our old conspire with their younger compatriots and allow themselves to be seen as useless for anything that matters, where are younger generations to look for an alternative version of their elders?

Rather than postponing old age with all the current regimens employed for that purpose, we ought to welcome it—"we" meaning old and young alike. Our extended life span (evidence seems to show longevity is primarily a function of congenial economic and social circumstances rather than sophisticated medical interventions) should be welcomed as years of extended maturity, not longer youth. We didn't want to postpone our progression from childhood to adulthood, why should we want to fend off the even richer years of old age?

Of course, not everyone turns into a poet or philosopher in their later years. Perhaps the only generalization possible is that whoever we are in the earlier part of our lives, in our elder years we will become more so. Irritable people become openly irascible. What previously seemed latent or was suppressed becomes blatant, in-your-face. It's as if a restraint we felt obliged to live under for the sake of social convention is now lifted and we feel free, perhaps even compelled, to let it all hang out. Maybe this phenomenon is even a concomitant of the heightened sensibility we enjoy or suffer from. We don't choose to become old grouches any more than we elect to become tripwires for every human emotion. It just seems to come with the territory. Some of us even seek to even up old scores, wrongs done us 50 or 60 years past that we have endured in silence. Not a pretty picture to observe in those we would prefer to see full of understanding and dignity.

There's no free ticket into a promised land of enhanced feeling and mature consciousness just because we make it to our seventh or eighth decade more or less vertical. We will be only what we have been. The old man is the child of the young man, the old woman of the young woman. There is nothing inevitable about old age. If we were young fools, we will be old fools. If we neglected our inner selves in our earlier years, we will have none in our maturity.

But if we have tried to live full lives—lives open to enriching our minds and hearts at every opportunity—if we have made choices that permit this development despite the temptations of material gain or its deprivation (the rich don't enter this promised land more easily despite the advantages they would seem to have), the rewards can be worth, literally, a lifetime.

But these ought not be "golden years" just for the old. In fact, if that's all they can be, a secret garden for the lucky ones who live long and have the wherewithal to enjoy it, they will be golden for no one. We old cannot exist on an island of heightened, confident sensibility in a sea of indifference or worse. Few of us, at any age, can fully respect ourselves if we are regarded as has-beens and now just a burden to others.

But who will make the change necessary to effect this new attitude toward the old? Not the young, who have been acculturated to see age as something to be dreaded and avoided as long as possible. Not their parents, who are even more frantic to keep their own senescence at bay, forever if possible. Not the media and the rest of the public culture, which is unapologetically youth-obsessed. And not that portion of the old who have accepted their status as impotent, unproductive objects of at best benign sentiment and at worst feel like caged animals waiting for the chopping block.

Who but ourselves, then, the old who know confidently what the rest do not about what it means to be elders in the best sense—matured and yet still maturing, not like fruit that has had its day and drops rotten to the ground, but like old whiskey that keeps getting more complex and offers more possibility the longer it is around?

There are cultures where the old are said to be honored. I've never lived in one, so I take this on faith. I do wonder, though, what it is about the old in those cultures that gives them special status—mere longevity, as if living a long time were a sign of divine favor? Accumulated knowledge in cultures that still look to handed-down traditions and know-how to ensure their survival? Are grandma and grandpa honored there because of the information and wisdom they carry in their heads like walking hard drives, or is reverence shown them for something more profound, perhaps the rich interior life I've been talking about?

What seems apparent is that as these cultures industrialize and rely less on a traditional life, the old seem to become less relevant and less revered. Perhaps the values—the values the old are uniquely positioned to pass on—remain, for a while, but the seduction of the modern way of life seems to make those values—the poetry of life, to sum it up in a few inadequate words—becomes at first quaint but then irrelevant and eventually invisible, while the old themselves, responding to their increasing superfluousness, take their cue and retire quietly from the central place they used to enjoy in life's drama.

A band of Irish monks are said to have preserved Western civilization through the Dark Ages of Europe. Sometimes it seems as if our present civilization is facing a similar crisis, with its legacy in the trust of a small number of obscure, all-but-invisible keepers of the flame. This may be the case for every generation. Cultural preservation isn't just the purview of the old, of course. But in a society where youth rules—meaning not the finest creations of the young but a corporate-driven commercial lowest common denominator, whether in pop music or serious literature—the small minority that needs to flourish, albeit in relative obscurity, to create and conserve the best moments of our humanity become irrelevant and all but disappear. Attending to what our old have to offer can be one way of maintaining that heritage—all that stands, really, between any generation and a new Dark Age.

A big part of a youth culture is physical beauty. For the past 2,000 years and more, certainly since the Hellenistic culture that prevailed throughout the civilized world from late biblical times to the end of the western Roman Empire, beauty has been equated with goodness and even truth. This equivalency has been a deep-seated cultural convention—something we scarcely think about but take for granted—that the good are beautiful and the evil ugly. Think Hollywood. But also think how we evaluate everything in these terms, from our politicians to our food.

Of course, beauty, at least how we have defined it for the past two millennia, is the great perennial asset of youth. But we tend to value it above talent, intelligence, even basic competence. We try to hang on to it indefinitely and despair at the prospect of its loss. When it does fade and disappear we assume a similar, mental degeneration has occurred inside those once comely, now wrinkled, flabby bodies. Ours is a simplistic way of looking at the world, a child's way, a dangerous way, but it's fundamental to our culture.

The old, many of the old, know better about this and much else besides. The rest, for the most part, do not, and so what the old know and feel is wasted, not valued, not even by themselves and, when expressed in unacceptable ways, medicalized and medicated.

I suspect most of the old do not realize what we are each individually experiencing is taking place at the same time in our peers and, like dissidents who fear being found out to be harboring subversive thoughts, keep their interior life to themselves. It's time we stopped doing this. It's time we acknowledged first to ourselves and then to others, especially to those who know and love us, what and who we are.

We older folk even have a tendency to call each other unflattering epithets the way African Americans, Jews, Hispanics and other so-called minorities revert to similar slurs toward each other that the majority population use for them. And for the same reasons: We are ashamed of ourselves, in our case for being physically and aesthetically diminished, mortified by the failures of our short-term memories and fickle bowels. We feel apologetic for taking up space that could be better used by someone younger. We wait for death in fear, but also with a sense of release from the indictment of uselessness and burden we live under. We are ashamed for growing old.

But, unlike slaves who had to depend on abolitionists far away to free them from their dehumanized state (though like them in that we need all the help we can get), we old have it within our power to free ourselves. Our shackles are mental—no less binding than iron but not as physically or socially constraining. A slave who escaped the slave mentality could not exercise that freedom as a full human being as long as she or he remained penned up by force. The old live in a mental prison, but it's a prison whose doors are wide open (we Americans seem to have perfected the establishment of mental ghettos in which the inmates police themselves).

We can start by treating each other with the respect we deserve. Like heads of states that can boast a high degree of civilization, we should show each other full diplomatic honors. We should treat our own as if we were each the walking treasures we are, precious gifts to ourselves and to everyone else—as we usually do, and should, regard the young and the strong and the beautiful.

Taking a new attitude toward ourselves may be the hardest part of claiming our rightful place. It's not easy to overcome a lifetime of prejudice in an environment that reinforces that prejudice every step of the way. We will need role models, other old folks like ourselves—not just celebrities or centenarians—to show the way. But we shouldn't wait for a messiah. We must lead ourselves. We are not forbidden access to the press and the public airways. We can meet without fear of lynching or serious harassment. If we allow ourselves to go on being marginalized, we have no one to blame but ourselves (not strictly true, of course; there would be plenty of blame to go around, but why play that game?). The first step is to recognize, acknowledge and celebrate our blessed state of maturity, stop apologizing for our deep feeling and start sharing our finely-honed insight.

We are the goal humankind has striven so long to reach: a ripe old age with bodies still in reasonably good working order. Reaching this goal used to be the privilege of a select few. Now threescore and ten and more has become commonplace. Why should we not assume our rightful place and share the blessings of this maturity with everyone else? Is it not irresponsible to do otherwise?

We didn't wait for our children to ask for parenting. We knew we had important lessons to teach them about life. We still do. We shouldn't wait for an invitation that may never come as they and the people they hire to look after us continue, even with the best of motives, to marginalize and silence us. We are the grownups society so desperately needs to lead it to better things and stop wasting its time, effort, money, and lives on the boogeymen under the bed. It's time we started acting like grownups. And it starts with our selves.


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