Monday, October 7th, 2013
I WONDER IF I’LL LET MYSELF BE OLD WHEN I AM
I have said some variation of that sentence to several people this week and have gotten the same reaction.
Somewhere between shock and repulsion.
I said the forbidden word.
OLD. “When I am OLD not older or mature or seasoned–OLD
I triggered a cultural taboo.
I could have said some truly awful words and gotten a less strong reaction.
I was talking to a wide range of people too. Adult children, a long term friend, a new friend, my husband, a client!
It wasn’t just that they didn’t want me to get old. I can so understand that. Especially with kids. I didn’t think my parents were old even when they had died for Pete’s sake. Still don’t.
No, the reaction was more that old was a very very bad thing to become.
Terrifying. Absolutely to be avoided.
A reality that could be ignored if never spoken or brought to a conscious level.
A giant cultural contract. Shhhh. We don’t do old.
After the strong reaction to the word OLD, came a bunch of conversations about the definitions of age, of retirement, of middle-age, of maturity of health even of youth. “It all depends on what ‘old’ means. Do you mean ‘old’ physically or mentally.” All words used to tap dance away from the fact that OLD exists.
No, I’m not old yet. But I want to be when I am. And I can see the horizon of old. But no wonder no one wants to be old in the U.S. where aging means being devalued and invisible or even worse–generic. And hard to look at. A reminder of frailty.
Maybe I can be old better in Mexico where we live part of the year, where older people are loved and fussed over because they are revered (and also kind of treated like cute babies — at least the fuss is the same) and never ever ever left alone. Eve. Los viejos are cared for–bathed, fed, petted and held.
Actually, I’m thinking of something more magnificent when it comes to “old”. Jung and Erickson talked about the development stages of a life–infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle adulthood and maturity followed by death. We in the American culture tend to skip over the very last stage. We pump up our middle life and keep recharging it until we drop (or are dropped) “dead”. Battery kaput.
But the last stage of a long life should be distinct and lived fully. It is a time of shedding of material burden and care–a culling. It should be one of comfort and simplicity. It should be a time of formal acknowledgement of wisdom gained. Time to tell the story of a life. There should be a ritual for entering “oldness”. The ritual should burnish the life, make it glow a little. There should be a ritual somewhere between a birthday and a wedding. The honored person would breath a sigh of relief to enter the time of life to only “be”. Doing is done. The elder is carried on the esteem of family and friends and culture. Old would not be defined by physical deterioration but by a new stage of life–celebration and liberation.
I am laughing. I just shared this thought with my husband whose visceral response was like that of a hot potato to be dropped as fast as possible.
“Will you order the casket too?” he said. He was appalled at the idea of relishing oldness. I liked what he said next though. “I’m at the stage where my age is none of my business.”
Wisdom or denial?