Talk to me, please. It makes me so much smarter.
(To find a specific post, click on the embedded caption and scroll down through the photos to read and comment.)
Dr. Bill Thomas’s incredible book, Second Wind¸ helps make sense of three possible approaches to aging currently stalking the land. His categories are exceptionally useful for sorting all the books, articles, products, and attitudes about aging that swirl around us all the time. His categories also help us assess—and evaluate, and maybe change—our own mind-set. Here goes:
Are you a Denialist?
Denialists are so freaked out by aging they just pretend they can avoid it. They buy the argument that we can defeat aging in our lifetime (see Aubrey de Grey), and funnel tremendous resources—time, money, and life energy— into finding ways to stop the clock until the “cure” for aging can be found. This hope is doomed, and is a perfect dark reflection of our viciously ageist culture.
Sidebar: “life expectancy” vs. “longevity”
Thomas makes an important distinction that Denialist gurus often intentionally confuse, between “life expectancy” and “longevity.”
“Life expectancy” is the average age a population of people can be expected to reach. Life expectancy in the west has increased dramatically because of great wins against early killers like infant mortality, infection, and communicable disease.
“Longevity,” in contrast, is the maximum number of years a human being can live. Longevity--a mixture of genes, environmental factors, and luck—has not increased appreciably in the last couple centuries. Dr. Thomas writes, “Even if we make stunning breakthroughs in gene therapy or other medical advances, we will not alter the reality that aging is tightly bound to the experience of being alive.”
Denialism is widespread, like the blind desperation about aging it reflects.
Are you a Realist?
Realists accept the fact of aging and death. They just think the whole thing is incredibly unfortunate. They’re all about sensible ways to stave off the ravages of age: fiber, sensible shoes, moderate exercise, Sudoku, and so forth. To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with all of those things! The Realist mis-fire is the mood: the heavy-heartedness of it all.
Are you an Enthusiast?
Here’s the Enthusiast creed: Aging is real, inevitable, and good. Enthusiasts—a rare breed, but growing in number—embrace the unique potential of the third stage of life—after childhood and adulthood, elderhood.
American culture is so ageist it’s almost impossible to conceive of true Enthusiasm about aging. But it’s possible—and the only desirable path. Enthusiasm is joyful, kind, insightful, and growth-filled—the stance toward aging that is most rewarding and will win the most converts, because of its generosity.
It’s a journey
I personally have moved through Denialism into Realism, and am working on becoming an Enthusiast. I think it’s a journey we all struggle through. Check out my Books section to find some good guides, including This Chair Rocks!, Second Wind, and Conscious Living, Conscious Aging. And let me know what you’re thinking.
I’ve been heavily involved in the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement for a few years. Recently, other local group leaders and I were gathered in my living room for our usual monthly meeting. We range in age from early thirties to mid-seventies. All of these leaders are committed activists; the older among us have been fighting the good fight for social justice since the 1960s. We’ve been there. And back.
This particular week, we’d invited an 18-year-old to meet with us. She and her friends had launched an impressive local youth initiative that concerned itself with GVP, racism, police brutality, and other pressing social ills. We wanted to hear from her about coordinating efforts on the GVP front. We wanted to be supportive without seeming to attempt to take over.
Well, but – are you woke?
She looked a little uneasy for a while, and was noncommittal, then blurted, “Well, some of the people–not me, but some others—wonder if you guys are woke enough. You know what I mean?”
It would’ve been a stitch to be a fly on the wall in the room right then, to observe the body language of all of us “elders” during our shocked silence: collective leaning back, widened eyes, suppressed laughter, disbelieving glances at each other.
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Honey, we were woke before you were born!” I think my friend Deborah was the first to speak. “You know,” she said, “some of us have been fighting for social justice for 40 years. Some even longer than that.” After this admirable young person had left, we all had a good laugh.
But activists of the 1960’s were young – not like you
But I kept pondering the disconnect between her evident perception of us and the homage paid on her group’s website to the student activists of the ‘60s. “We stand on these giants’ shoulders,” the website said.
But when she looked at us living, breathing people, she didn’t see the courageous student activists we’d been—those “giants”; she saw parents and grandparents who might represent many good things, but look nothing like the young student activists in her head—the student activists who looked like her and her friends, though in goofier clothes.
A self-protective imagination gap
I think what I saw was this 18-year-old’s inability to imagine herself aging into someone who looked like us. And I get that. It’s hard to imagine when you’re 18 and your body’s perfect, blooming, unblemished, perky, that you’ll ever look like someone decades older. You think you’ll escape. We all do. It’ll never happen to me, personally. I think kids that age almost see aging as a failing on our part, one they’ll never be so blind as to stumble into.
It’s this absolute disconnect–making elders “Other”–that enables and reinforces ageism. This is why Ashton Applewhite’s idea of becoming “An Old Person in Training” is so important. In a nutshell, it means actively imagining yourself into your aging body.
Hard as that is, it’s much harder to imagine yourself into the experienced, generous, creative mind you’re likely developing as you age. Becoming An Old Person in Training is a radical act: it’s a refusal to reject your future self. Read more here about this vital idea.