Much to my surprise, I find that I’m now part of a large minority that is often ignored, frequently disdained, and regularly segregated.
I am old.
And indeed, it’s quite a shock to find that the world in which I worked, struggled, dreamed, and loved now regards me quite differently than it did only 10 years ago. Growing old, it seems, is a condition that Western post-industrial society and culture do not consider meaningful, useful, or even valid. And yet, the truth is, and this is also a surprise, that as we become old, we enter a time of life, even with its losses and deficits, that is not a defective version of youth or middle age, but is something quite different, with its own qualities, discoveries, and surprises.
“Ageism” is an attitude people inflict on themselves. Old people are what almost everyone will become. But somehow, this part of existence is treated as something that must be actively ignored, as if old age were an infectious disease transmitted by acknowledging it. Or a misfortune that can be averted by denying it. “You’re only as old as you think you are,” said my son recently. “Only young people think that,” I snapped. Contemplating dying and death is, it seems, more appealing than imagining being old.
Most books and articles on aging offer brisk, hard-nosed advice about patient management or wishful thinking packaged as self-help. But Atul Gawande has written with unsparing clarity about the bleak fate of institutional powerlessness, offered in the name of “care” and “safety,” which almost half of us face in old age. The number of euphemisms for “old” proliferate, as if by not using the word, we could forestall the fact. But the intense and complex inner experiences that come with aging are rarely probed.
We cannot escape the fact that old age is a time of loss. Old, we experience depletion in many parts of our lives. Our bodies and senses weaken, become unreliable in unforeseen ways, fall subject to illness, and require more attention simply to continue a reasonable level of function. More difficult is the loss of friends and family and the changes in the social institutions where we once had a place. Most difficult and certainly most frightening is the threat or actual loss of mental capacity. None of these occurrences are part of how we thought of ourselves or planned our future. As we age, our lives become strangely unrecognizable. We realize that life is no longer in our control. And old age ends only when we enter a terrain that is truly and completely unknown.
Thus, more than any other time in life, old age is the time of deepest and most pervasive uncertainty. The uncertainty regarding our financial sustainability is not the least of these, but somehow comes to epitomize the perilousness of our situation. How we will manage being ourselves, being in our world, is no longer obvious. So we feel the world moving away from us. We can no longer reach out and grasp and cling, control and shape what’s happening. Our future is no longer limitless. It is genuinely and utterly unknowable.
But as the world becomes perhaps more distant and out of our control, we begin to see patterns we had never imagined or only dimly sensed. Our world, our selves become less stable and less secure. Everything is more intensely transitory. Situations, objects, places, people become, moment by moment, very deeply to be cherished, valued; loved, not in spite of being impermanent, but because they and we are only together for this moment. Colors become more vivid, momentary smells, sudden sounds, temperatures and textures, memories, ideas, gestures appear, vanish, and only briefly detach themselves from the flow of sensoria. We take less and less for granted.
Late in their lives, Titian, Michelangelo, O’Keeffe, Tagore, Jean Rhys, Palladio, Daisy Loongkoonan, Paul Cézanne, Janáček, Maria Martinez, Stravinsky, and many others found new and unexpected ways of looking at themselves and their world. They continued and even extended their arts. In old age, as their bodies weakened and the world changed, they did not look away. Instead, in worlds of decline and loss, they experienced new tonalities, new music, new patterns. Having exhausted more conventional possibilities, they discovered new relationships to melody and harmony, to narrative, to color, form, light, and space. They found unforeseen paths, articulated subtleties and beauties never before encountered. The work they have left us and the stories of their lives are signposts for us.
This is not to say that we, the old, will all accomplish extraordinary things. But our situation, the actual experience of aging, is an opening for all of us. We here encounter something unexpected, sometimes frightening, sometimes revelatory. And now, as more and more of us live to advanced years, it is crucial to accept and even embrace our condition. This time of life offers new viewpoints in a world that cannot stop its habitual obsession with consuming and polluting. It does so, even as those who care for us cannot imagine our inner life, the uncertainty, peril, and, above all, the continued restless searching which is mind itself. Old age may seem too painful to contemplate and explore, but indeed we must. It is a time of life we might wish to ignore but which all of us, the living, will and must share. It is inevitable. And it is, in its own way, a gift.
For, as Thoreau once said, “Not ‘til we are lost… not ‘til we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
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