Outta’ the Way, Gramps

Our culture has been youth-oriented since at least the turn of the last century.  There are many reasons for this.  At the turn of the nineteen hundreds, it was still a relatively new country.  Youth and energy were needed to settle a big country, build roads, canals, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines, dams and skyscrapers.  Old, traditional ways, associated with the “old country” in Europe, were being scrapped and new manners and mores invented. We streamlined convention and approached things directly, adopting a manner that is still associated with Americans in business and diplomatic circles.  We had the cocky self-assurance of young people who really don’t know what stumbling blocks may lie ahead.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is associated with aging.  Wisdom profits from our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others, and has the humility to admit to being wrong.  As a nation, we are aging, but our value system hasn’t shifted from a love of what is new, fast, and clever to an appreciation of the wisdom and inner peace that is traditionally associated with age.  We baby boomers are quickly swelling the ranks of the over-sixty population, but rather than using our numbers to insist on dignity and respect for elders, we try to pretend we are still young.  We dye our hair, we don’t ask for discounts at the movie theater, we want to be called something other than “grandpa” or “grandma” by our kids’ children.  We like being told we look younger than our age.  We don’t like being called “old.”

I admit I participate in this.  When someone tells me I look younger than my sixty-five years, I beam and say “Thank you,” instead of taking the braver and more mature stance in paraphrase of Gloria Steinem, “This is what sixty-five looks like!”  Although I’m supposedly on the path to “go gray,”  I still see the hair colorist every few months.  When someone tells me I’m not old, I don’t argue much.  In my private thoughts, I think, “I am much younger-minded than others my age,”  and so on.  Of course, keeping the mind and body functioning on a par with a younger age is a worthy, life-enhancing goal.  Considering all things young more desirable than the wisdom and perspective that has been gleaned over a lifetime is not.

In the workplace, younger people may be faster and have sharper memories.  They also have a handle on the contemporary popular culture, since we idolize youth and encourage young people to take the lead in determining what is “of the moment.”  As throughout the twentieth century, technology plays a part in perpetuating the value of youth over older age:  Young people have, at each generation – not of humans, but of computers – a better handle on the state of the art.  This perpetuates both the youth culture and the hiring practices of the work place.  What is lost is the value of the human skills that it takes a lifetime to learn.

Young people fall in love, but it takes a lifetime  really to learn to love.  Tolerance for others, patience, perspective and other human values invaluable to the work place take many years to develop within us.  Younger people may grasp and incorporate the corporate culture, it takes wisdom to truly think in terms of “we.”  The same can be said of the political arena.  Politicians and corporate types may well be over forty, but the competitive values of our youth oriented culture are the values they reflect.  In fact, as a nation, we are growing older.  Isn’t it time we grew up?

Boys and Girls

“Look to the future, because that is where you’ll spend the rest of your life.”  – George Burns

Curiously, when I was in my early 20s, I referred to my boyfriend as my “old man.”  I was the “old lady.”  When I became sixty however, I called the man I was living with my “boyfriend.” For the first time since my early twenties (1967 or so), I find myself referring to my female friends who are my age or older as “girls.”  As you may remember, the feminist movement made a big issue at that time about about referring to women as girls.  Never mind that some of us were girls.  The term was overused, and often used in ways that were sexualizing and demeaning.  Advertisements for Vegas acts shouted “Girls! Girls! Girls!” meaning lots of bare flesh, particularly breasts and butts.  Actual girls, as in prepubescent females, don’t have those, at least not in such abundance.  We started demanding to be referred to as women.

I think I have picked up my present usage of the term from those women among my friends who were of a much earlier generation and didn’t get the memo about not calling each other “girl.”  There is also an element of wishfulness, as if calling ourselves by the name of someone younger could erase the years.  If I didn’t participate in this charade, I might be amused by it.  Going out for a drink with “the girls” does sound a lot more fun than going out with the other old ladies,but why?  Liveliness and laughter are qualities we associate with youth, but they are not the sole propriety of youth.  I have heard gales of laughter arising from groups of people at any age.  Older people have plenty to laugh about, and they often do.  Look at George Burns!

Really, older people are often younger “at heart” than people caught up in adulthood.  That’s actually how I think of it.  Adulthood is like a gritty but romantic movie in which the main actor – the hero – is ourselves.  In adulthood, we must conquer a multitude of opposing forces and acquire the requisite amount of points to obtain the good in life.  Both of these can be external or internal.  For instance, the opposing force might be our own weakness for chocolate or a churl of a boss.  The good in life – always a feeling – can seem to take the form of a great lover, a fine meal, praise from others, or money in the bank.  It is the hero’s journey. We are participants in an ultimately virtual video game, vanquishing the enemy and racking up points; forgetting that the enemy and the “good” both lie within.

Participation in the game is almost mandatory during adulthood.  The job, the family life, the laws of the land set up the playing field.  We have to prove ourselves. When we get older, we get to relax a little bit.  It’s all been done:  The work life ended, the family raised, lovers forgotten or tucked away as precious memories, fortunes won and lost. What more is there to prove?

Attitudes Toward Aging Part II

When I worked for an organization serving older adults in Marin County, I sometimes had speaking engagements.  I was then, as now, a student of Buddhism.  I often opened the topic of attitudes toward aging by telling a story from the life of Buddha:  Buddha was born, as we know, a prince, in Northern India.  While Buddha’s mother was pregnant, there was a prophesy going around that the baby would be either a great king or a great spiritual teacher.  Naturally his father wanted him to be king.  In order to assure this, the king did everything possible to make the young prince feel content in his station.  Siddhartha was showered with the best of everything:  food, entertainment, companions.  He was never allowed outside the palace walls.  Everything was brought to him.

As the prince grew older, he became restless, as young men often do.  He wanted to see more of the world.  He had a close relationship with his charioteer, who agreed to take him beyond the palace gates.  Wearing a disguise, Buddha rode out into the city that essentially belonged to him, and saw it for the first time.

If you have been to India, you know that the city streets are very different from a beautiful, tranquil garden.  Some people were well dressed, others were ragged.  People pushed and shoved, offered things for sale, washed themselves and their clothing at a public well, and so on.  Prince Siddhartha was a bit taken aback and a little excited.  He urged his charioteer to drive on.  After awhile, they passed a man walking slowly with a cane.  The man’s hair and beard were snow white.  “Why is the man so slow?”  Buddha asked his driver.

“That man is old,”  answered the charioteer. “If you live a long life, that is what happens.”  Soon they passed a man being carried on a stretcher.  A woman walked along side, wiping his brow.   The man was very thin and pale.

“What is wrong with that man?” Buddha asked his servant.

“That man is sick,” the charioteer replied.  Buddha had never seen sickness.  He was upset to see such suffering.  Less excited and a bit troubled, he told the driver to go on.  Soon another man was carried by on a stretcher, but this time the man’s face was covered as well.  Instead of walking along side, the wife followed the stretcher, weeping.

“What’s wrong with that man, is he also sick?” asked  Buddha.

“Sire, that man is dead,” replied the charioteer sadly.  “Sooner or later, we all must die; kings or beggars, rich or poor, foreigner and citizen alike.  Everyone who is born eventually dies.”

The Buddha was quite troubled by now.  All this had been kept from him.  “My parents – will they also die?”

“Yes, and when your father dies you will be king.”

“And, I, myself…  I will die?”

“Yes.”

Siddhartha told his driver to return to the palace.  His mind and heart were troubled.  So this was life.  Poverty and struggle, old age, sickness and death.  Life was far different from the perfumed garden in which he had been kept ignorant of the inevitable truth.  Just outside the palace gate, they passed another man.  Thin and white haired, he looked neither sick nor troubled.  He sat on a mat, cross-legged, with downcast eyes.  “What is that man?”  Asked the prince.

“He is a saddhu, a meditator and spiritual seeker,” replied the charioteer.  Prince Siddhartha could see that the meditator was not troubled by the conditions of life, while he, a powerful prince, had no inner peace.   He resolved to leave the palace and become a spiritual seeker.

Today, we in the West live in a situation similar to Buddha’s life as a prince.  We are distracted by food and entertainment.  We normally keep ourselves quite sheltered from old age, death, and serious illness to the extent that these are relegated to specific institutions.  Sick people are in hospitals.  We might visit, but then we go home and leave it to the nurses to bathe, feed, and care for them.  Older people live in seperate communities, and death is swept under the rug.  Just as Buddha’s father tried to do, we live in the illusion that old age and death will never come.  The cost of this denial is that  we are unprepared when old age does come.  We face a difficult adjustment.

Also, like the young Buddha, being unaware of the suffering in life and this life’s inevitable end, we fail to find meaning.  It was the awareness of suffering that led Buddha to his search, and its conclusion.  The answer he later found was that the suffering of life can and does have an end.  This end is achievable by all. The shift that ends suffering is within ourselves, not in the external world. There was no way he could have realized enlightenment by staying inside the palace gates.  Pure awareness can not arise from self deception.

Attitudes Toward Aging

Getting older, it has been said, is not so bad considering the alternative.  Many people would not choose to age if there were no such consequence; yet if the only alternative were to have to retain the same mindset as we had when young, many people would still prefer to age.  Several of my friends who gathered in the clubhouse today said that they would not want to be seventeen or twenty-five again.  Adolescence and young adulthood certainly have their angst.  I suspect that if we really thought about it, we may not want to be thirty-five or forty again, either.  Once adulthood is in full swing, the angst has gone considerably underground, but it is still there.  We are at the top of our game, but to stay there, we can’t stop running.

With age, we stop running.  The level of true self-worth goes up, the false ego softens.  This happens naturally and sometimes with a sigh of relief.  Often the shift follows a series of losses.  I mentioned in my last post that recent research tells us old people are overall happier than younger people.  If youth and attractiveness were really as important as the imagery everywhere present in our culture suggests, this wouldn’t make sense.  In fact, many of our attitudes toward aging, and death, for that matter, reflect a huge shadow projection of our youth-oriented culture.

Other cultures don’t necessarily share our bias against aging.  When I was traveling in Asia, One of the first questions people asked to strike up conversation if riding next to me on the bus or at a restaurant was, “How old are you?”  Although I had heard about this, and even though I prided myself on having a positive view of aging, I was automatically taken aback by this questions.  Cultural conditioning has taught me that this is an impolite question.  You don’t ask a lady her age!

Instead, we might ask someone “What do you do for a living?”  How polite is that, when you think about it?  It’s almost like asking someone how much money they have, since we all have some idea what various professions earn.  People in Asia rarely ask that question.  Of course, in Asia, being older is nothing to be ashamed about, just the opposite:  It is a matter of pride.  One has that much more living experience, greater wisdom, and the strength to survive.  It is as if with every passing year one has earned a higher degree in the University of Life.

A man in Jamaica once said to me, “Life is full of little holes.”  So it is.  At each age, something is less than satisfactory.  Childhood, supposedly carefree, is burdened by a lack of self-determination.  Adulthood is burdened by the responsibilities of parenthood and making a living.  The retirement years, while relieved of some mundane responsibilities, is burdened with a loss of physical strength.  On the other hand, life is an amazing journey and filled with delight at every age and stage.  People who have lived longer have had more opportunity to become the best we can be.  It is something to be proud about and something deserving the honor and respect of others.

When I refer to myself as old, people immediately respond, “You’re not old.”  They mean, I guess, that it’s not yet time to give it all up and sit quietly in my rocking chair.  But when is it ever time for that?  When I say I’m old, what people should say is, “Congratulations!  You made it!”  Hopefully I’ll live to be older, but let’s face it, I may not.  They don’t give you social security and medicare because you’re not old.  I’ve survived childhood.  I’ve survived youth.  I’ve survived intoxicating substances.  I’ve survived parenthood.  I’ve survived uninspiring jobs and cranky bosses.  I’ve survived taxes.  I’ve survived travel.  I’ve survived graduate school.  I’ve survived marriage.  I’ve survived crossing city streets numerous times.  Aging is not a bad thing.  It’s a great achievement.