Gladly Grasping The Glories Of Greyness

The latest (3 January) issue of Forbes references a Washington Post op-ed by Prof. Laura L. Carstensen, professor of psychology and the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. professor in public policy at Stanford University, on the semiotics of aging started me reflecting about what I want to be called, and what I do not want to be called, now that I am pushing 70. (I will be 69 in April of 2018.) Words matter. And – over time measured in multiple years – certain words / terms have become increasingly patronizing because I have, over that same interval of time, come to think of myself more and more, not as middle-aged, but simply as old. Prof. Carstensen is right: By failing to identify with “old,” the story about old people remains a dreary one about loss and decline. Language matters: We need a term that aging people can embrace. The following is how I learned how to identify with “old”, and also became sensitized to the clandestine insults, usually well-intended, that are  couched in the language we use to talk about aging.

I did not begin to think of myself as old until the thrice-damned sciatica hit. That was during the first week of September, 2012. Prior to that time, I would regularly go walking 3 to 5 miles 3 to 5 days a week on the Soos Creek Trail a couple of miles from my house.  Even if I occasionaly walked 5 miles 5 days a week, even that level of activity felt merely pleasantly challenging, no more. But then in the first week of September, 2012, came the sciatica. (I will spare us both the back story.) In a couple of days, I went from being able to walk 5 miles a day, 5 days a week, to being barely able to walk across the room without weeping with pain. Through a veil of tears, I forced myself to exercise, first, by walking perhaps 1/8 of a mile a day 2 days a week, then finally, after a couple of years “gutting” my way up to 2 or 3 miles a day 2 or 3 days a week. Result:  by age 63, I had learned how to walk like a true and hopeless invalid:  stooped, taking baby steps (with subvocal whimpering if I were going uphill), and with frequent rests every several-dozen steps. I believed a wheelchair was in my future.

After roughly five years, what ultimately saved my cookies was the intervention of an excellent chiropractor, Dr. Steven Ryan, whose clinic is perhaps 2 miles from my front door. A life-long skeptic of chiropractic medicine, I only saw Dr. Ryan out of sheer desperation. I am a skeptic no longer. At the end of my first 20-minute session with “Dr. Steve” in early July of 2017, I walked away improved more than in the previous 5 years of physical therapy, acupuncture, and massage combined. So I began to see him 3 days a week in early July of 2017, and by the middle of September, 2017, I was essentially cured – provided I did my morning and evening stretching exercises with OCD-like regularity. I can no longer walk my customary 5 miles a day, 5 days a week, but I can do at least 3 miles a day at least 3 days a week. So there is a quasi-happy ending.  And if I extrapolate my present "improvement curve" ... who knows?

As the pain gradually receded, what I was left with in its stead, like rich topsoil deposited by the flooding of the Nile, was an immeasurably greater ability to truly empathize with, e.g., Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, who said that, yes, he knew all men are mortal, that Socrates is a man, and that therefore Socrates is mortal … but nevertheless concludes “Socrates, yes – but not me, not little Vanya!” Unlike Ivan Ilyich, now I know “in the biblical sense” and on a gut level, as the aftermath of sciatica, that Tolstoy’s syllogism really does include “me, little Jimmy”. I am duly chastened:  I now know, also on a gut level, that I am mortal. So I over-the-top agree with Prof. Carstensen:  indeed, Language matters ... [w]e need a term that aging people can embrace.

I am not sure I know what words “aging people can embrace,” and I am even less sure that I know what words I, personally, can embrace. But I damn well do know of a couple that I reject out of hand, usually with extreme prejudice, and sometimes even with more than a little heat and sense of offense. So I approach this issue primarily from a negative standpoint:  what not to do, what not to say.  Speaking only for myself, I hereby admonish one and all to not ever, under any circumstances, refer to me as …

o A “life-long learner” … Are you familiar with the expression “Damn with faint praise”? (As in, e.g., “Prof. Stephen Hawking is a competent physicist” … “Yitzhak Perlman plays a pretty good fiddle” …  I think you get the idea.) Well, there should also be a companion locution:  “Insult with faint praise”. Think for a moment. If your experience is anything like mine, I would wager you have never heard the label “life-long learner” applied to, e.g., a student in her, say, early 20s, who has just finished her bachelor’s degree in some field, and has been accepted into a graduate school. Or a student who has finished a degree in some field, and is applying to colleges to be admitted to study a different field for a second baccalaureate degree. I have never heard anyone in either category called a “life-long learner”. Only old(er) people.

The implication clearly is that, when you walk off the stage with your diploma and when you are old enough that, because of limited time if for no other reason, your allegedly superannuated brain is allegedly past its “use-by” date so that its next subway stop is labeled "Dementia", you should simply stop asking questions that begin with words like like “Why?” and “How?”, especially "Why" and "How" questions whose answers, if and when you discover them, have no immediate utilitarian value. In other words, old people cannot be philosophers or theoreticians.

But sometime in 2012, as a result of a back story too long to relate, I asked for and obtained permission from the University of Washington law school to audit classes in constitutional law and the First Amendment, purely on a non-credit, non-participatory basis. (UW has a wonderful program called ACCESS whereby anyone above age 60 can audit almost any class at UW for a mere token fee.) When people learned what I was doing, especially the young students in my con-law classes, they looked at me as if I had grown a second head. (The law school students were puzzled but never insulting, least of all condescending, toward me, despite my never having been even a law-school student, much less a practicing attorney. We had some excellent conversations before / after class and during the breaks. To some of the students, in fact, I became a kind of Yoda-figure:  strange it was, ennobling I found it!) But everyone wondered:  why was I paying money (the $30 or so ACCESS audit fee)? undertaking a grueling round-trip commute from East Hill Kent to UW? voluntarily signing up for tons of reading in a $200 casebook that itself weighed tons? spending hours at home immersing myself in case law, which raised even more questions that kicked off even more reading (some of which, especially on the "dormant" commerce clause, I did while kicked back on a beach in Hawaii and sipping a beer ... yes, I am serious)? They were even more astonished when they learned that I was doing all this half-crippled with a severely compressed sciatic nerve that made walking from the parking lot uphill to the law school at UW an exercise in pain-endurance worthy of Game of Thrones. (Remember:  all this was before I discovered Dr. Ryan in 2017.) All to take a course that would not count toward a degree and in whose discussions, as an auditor, I was usually not allowed to participate. (For the record, I do support UW's auditor non-participation policy.) Why?

The implication clearly is that, as a matter of course and for lack of ability to do otherwise, old people will turn their brains off and renounce even the pretense of gratuitous and passionate curiosity … at least about anything more demanding that better ways to keep their breakfast oatmeal from dribbling from their toothless mouths and down their chins. So says the "elderly / senior" stereotype. I vehemently disagree. On the contrary, I think T. S. Eliot was right:  “Old men ought to be explorers”. (Women, too, but Eliot was no one’s idea of a feminist!)

T. S. Eliot

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses was an old man when he began his second voyage, with his elderly crew, to explore parts of the world he missed during his first voyage. Would anyone be foolhardy enough to patronize or to condescend to Ulysses, the man who blinded Polyphemus, by calling Ulysses a "life-long learner"? As it turned out, my participation, even as an auditor, in the con-law classes and the classes on the First Amendment was an almost religious experience that renovated my knowledge of history and my political ideology from the bone marrow outward. Bottom line:  never shut down your brain. You will seem odd only to people who have already shut down theirs.

o “Spiritual” … I am also not terribly enthusiastic about being described as "spiritual", though in this case, my animus is almost purely idiosyncratic, rooted in my personal experience with matters theological and religious. Again, the term "spiritual" is nearly always applied to me with the intent of complimenting me. Problem is, given my history, this presumptive compliment often comes across as telling me I do a killer cosplay-impersonation of Adolf Hitler. Not all the time. My in-law family -- basically, my Tribe -- almost never uses the "s-word" to refer to me, and even when they do, it is never with that intent. But then, my in-law family is Buddhist, not Judaeo-Christian. (And yes, I do understand that the term "Judaeo-Christian" is itself highly problematical. But let's leave that rant for another time, shall we, because it is not relevant at the moment, anyway.) When Westerners tell me I am "spiritual," however, they tend to mean that I have an exceptional affinity with the monotheistic God of Judaeo-Christianity, of whom Prof. Richard Dawkins has aptly observed:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

The only thing worse than being implicitly characterized as a "good Nazi" is being characterized as a "good elderly Nazi". Thanks but no thanks.  Again, I fully realize that is not the intent of the speaker, quite the contrary. So I concentrate on the intent behind the words, and I am usually OK. But, intent aside, the words and their surface meaning serve to remind me that I spent roughly 55 years as a devotee of a religious faith that (a) I could never get the "hang-uv", and (b) that I probably would not have wanted to get the "hang-uv" if, during those 55 years, I had ever stopped to think deeply and with no cherry-picking about what I believed and what I was doing. (See also this.) Once I stopped cherry-picking, I realized that I had been trying to earn the validation of Prof. Dawkins' god, and that nothing could restore the years the locust had eaten, contra Joel 2:25. That is a deeply unsettling insight to accompany one into the latter part of life. So, regardless of intent, "spiritual" does more harm than good.

So what is the bottom line for me?  Two words:  carpe diem -- "Seize the day". Today. This day. This moment. Right now. Perhaps paradoxically, I do find compensatory wisdom, and a kind of austere comfort as I age, in a single biblical text:  [B]ehold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:2) Back in my fundamentalist evangelical days, I interpreted this text to mean that one had best walk forward during the revival meeting, shake the evangelist's hand, kneel, and ask God's forgiveness, lest one get smeared on the freeway driving home from church. Now I see it as expressing a deeper wisdom:  now, this moment, is the only moment that is real, the only moment we have, the only moment we can have.

In that sense, and to that extent, age is irrelevant.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Snowboarder ... Super Rabbit One ... CC BY-SA 2.0
Electrical outlet ... Mark Sebastian ... CC BY-SA 2.0
"South African Roads" ... cornstaruk ... CC BY 2.0
Elder protests ... Wing1990hk ... CC BY 3.0
Ulysses ... Jastrow ... Public domain
T. S. Eliot ... Photographic self-portrait ... Public domain

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