Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher
Monday, May 9, 2011
© Charles D. Hayes
For decades I’ve seen a spate of new books be published, almost as if the times demand them, celebrating the rewards of aging. Then a few years later, more books emerge to refute the lot of them by focusing on the darker side of growing old. I would like to think that September University falls in the middle, although that’s for others to decide. But four recent books in the latter category come to mind and offer some insight into the realities of aging when we compare them to the positive hype we hear so often about the so-called golden years.
In Shock of Gray, Ted Fishman’s subtitle forecasts his expectation of what’s to come: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation. Fishman paints an austere image of the future, assuming we stay the current course. He cites studies showing that older adults are easily influenced by negative stereotypes associated with aging. In other words, if we are said to have poor memories because of our age, we tend to act the part. Fishman asks many provocative questions about aging demographics that only time will answer, but many portend an economically depressive time ahead if immediate actions to avoid them are not taken.
A still darker view comes from Marc Agronin’s How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. Agronin provides examples of aging seemingly gone wrong. He does so with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t make his observations any less dismal. One of his conclusions, though, is heartening. Agronin claims “our greatest humanity emerges in the desperate process of caring for someone old and ill.” If we could cultivate this virally as a stereotype, it could be useful.
Then comes Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die. One of my favorite authors, she reminds us of the absurdity and nonsense we experience as suggested in her subtitle: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. Jacoby breaks through the psychobabble as she always does, regardless of the subject, and stops in its tracks the hyperspin about positive aging with assertions of reality like this: “We cannot continue to base our image of old age on the extraordinary person, blessed by a combination of affluence and physiological hardiness, who remains ‘sharp as a tack’ and takes up a new youthful hobby—say, skydiving—in her nineties.” Personally I’ve heard the sharp as tack assertion from people describing an older relative more times than I care to recall; it’s a stereotype for certain and one we can do without.
Finally, the book about aging that I can’t get out of my mind is Ira Rosofsky’s, Nasty, Brutish and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare. Perhaps I’ve seized on the book because it’s about nursing homes, and my experience with them has been grim in the extreme. Rosofsky writes with profound seriousness, but also with humor and compassion. What he calls the “Rosofsky Law of Inverse Proportionality” is the part I find unforgettable. About professionals like himself who care for the elderly, he writes, “The more training you have, the less time you spend with patients.”
This fact speaks volumes about the lack of objectivity among healthcare providers and in nursing homes in particular. It speaks even louder about their concern for their profit margin, which too often is a more important objective than the well-being of their residents. Rosofsky’s Law bodes ill for the future of millions of people—a future where little encouragement is needed to find something to worry about on the dark side of aging.
Recently I was explaining to a colleague that never in my 68 years on the planet do I recall a time when the future seemed more threatened and unstable than now: earthquakes the world over, nuclear devastation in Japan, and tornadoes by the score in the Midwest. The U.S. is to varying degrees engaged in three wars and counting, as the Middle East implodes and the threat of collateral terrorism is always a concern, especially with the death of Osama bin Laden. Financial ruin is the reality for hundreds of thousands of people as the housing meltdown continues seemingly unaffected by efforts for remedy. We still experience unemployment that rages on in spite of record profits for corporations, while compensation for the well connected is off the charts, even higher now than before the financial calamity began.
All of this concern makes the idea of some measure of economic equality and stability for America’s middle class at large seem totally out of touch with reality. Through media sound bites and a diligent investment in political lobbyists, the rich and powerful have managed to subvert the public imagination so thoroughly that a large percentage of the electorate who are ironically near the bottom economic rung in America view the prospect of raising taxes on the rich as tantamount to a Communist plot. And raising the cap on payroll taxes for social security, which is one obvious solution to keep the payout stable, is avoided as if the idea is radioactive. Add the exponential growth of Alzheimer’s, rising medical costs, an absence of goodwill to see that everyone gets healthcare, the threat of global pandemics, and the looming shadow of ever- possible government shutdowns over simplistic ideologies in future federal budgets, and one could easily begin to worry about what’s ahead. My list could go on and on, but I need not continue because no doubt you can do that on your own.
What I do know for sure is this: In a few short years those of us in the fall and winter of life will be no more, but the effects of what we did or did not do in life will continue on like a tsunami of cause and consequence. Or what’s just as likely is a void reeking of irresponsibility, where action could have made a difference but didn’t due to collective apathy. Maybe this attitude is better characterized simply as a lack of interest, while individuals en masse play cards and strive to improve their golf game.
Depending, of course, on where you are in the world and under what circumstances you live, my emphasis on the perception above can seem trivial. Earthquakes and tornadoes, for example, have always been a part of our reality, and if you’re near the epicenter of the former or in the path of the latter, the rest of my argument is moot. But through the centuries, from the very beginning, Americans have been called on to act when action is necessary, and every generation has a responsibility to take responsibility for their times. Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation is a case in point.
Even for those of us who are keenly aware that life is not fair, the realities of aging accentuate that unfairness with a vengeance. So much illness and so many accidents befall people later in life that spending too much time fretting about the future can rob us of what time we have left. In September University, I layout an ambitious blueprint of ways in which I hope to make a contribution to posterity. Though I’m very much aware that I may not be able to live up to my own expectations, I’m determined to do as much as I can while I can.
Rising to the Occasion
In sharp contrast, I’m reminded constantly that the two people I have admired most in life, my maternal grandparents, would have thought it strange to set out to do something for posterity. In a recent episode on Book TV, Stephanie Coontz talked about her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. She took her book title from an opening paragraph in Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, where Freidan wrote of the need for women to rise to the occasion of changing their life circumstances. She described this first realization by many women as a strange stirring.
Many of us today are likely experiencing similar stirrings but with misgivings as well. Coontz puts in perspective the difficulty of taking action when it’s called for because of how hard it can be to figure out what ought to be done. When one is beset with feelings that the status quo is unjust, the path forward can seem unclear because any action taken to correct the situation will go against the grain of custom.
Hearing Coontz describe the social mores of gender roles in the 1960s is stunning, even though I experienced them as an adult. Gradual change over many years can later seem striking with the full realization of how dramatically things have changed. A half-century ago, women’s rights were more apparent than real. Their roles were in many cases rigidly defined. Some form of oppression prevailed in most aspects of women’s lives, from being highly subservient in marriage to the kind of work women were thought to be suited for. Upon reflection, this kind of realization makes the actions of past generations more understandable. Times change and people do, too.
My grandparents’ generation lived through the global upheaval of World War I, and my grandfather experienced the war firsthand in the trenches in France. Their generation endured the Great Depression, and to a significant degree this was their occasion. They rose to meet it with a penchant for self-reliance that would last a lifetime. So, while my grandparents likely would have thought that openly setting out to make a contribution to society is puzzling, they did, in point of fact, rise to the occasion of the times in which they lived. Their extraordinary self-reliance stands out now as strange in contrast to the expectation of receiving some kind of aid that most people live with today whenever assistance is needed.
In an earlier essay, I wrote that my grandparents increasingly found themselves in a more alienated world, a world of strangers and of customs that seemed to grow more absurd with each passing year. And now that they have been gone for many years, the world no longer seems like a place amenable to their very existence. In other words, they were not right for now, and the world today is not right for them. There simply has been too much change. This affirms Coontz’s observations and implies that each and every generation can expect to experience enough change to require reflection and thoughtful action in response. Indeed, I would argue that, because of advances in technology, the need for reflection and thoughtful action is growing exponentially. The kinds of change that once took a century can occur in a generation, and what once took a generation can now occur in a year or two.
My grandparents lived lives very much worthy of emulation, but my parents did not follow their example, and in many ways I haven’t either. And yet, nowadays, the lessons of their lives are constantly on my mind. Now, I realize that they rose to the occasion of the times in which they lived in the best way that they knew how. These days, the occasion in which we find ourselves calls for nothing short of a political intervention, to keep middle-class America from disappearing. Our taxes are the lowest they’ve been in a half-century, and yet public perception is so erroneously skewed that it’s considered unthinkable by many to ask that corporations and the super rich pay a higher tax rate. Wall Street captains of industry complain that we have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, and yet two-thirds of American corporations pay no taxes at all.
This brings me back to the biggest lesson from recollections about the last years of my grandparents’ lives. The two people I admired most in life experienced years of misery as their health deteriorated. So acute and severe was the condition of their physical health that the word torture comes to mind as an appropriate descriptor. My grandmother cared for my ailing grandfather at home rather than send him to a nursing home, and her own health suffered as a result. She did eventually go to a nursing home, where she died what could only be described as a wretched death. If we want something better for ourselves and our family members, we are going to have to rise to the occasion and make it happen.
With thousands of baby boomers turning 65 each day, seldom a month goes by that some news of their life circumstance doesn’t make a media headline—how many baby boomers can’t afford to retire, for example, or how many will face poverty in old age. In September University, I put a lot of faith in the baby boom generation to use their life experience to the fullest, with the expectation that if only a small percentage of their vast demographic chooses to engage in some activist sense of rising to the occasion, it could, would, and will have a positive impact on the future. If there were ever a time for a strange stirring it is now. Time will tell. What will your contribution have been?
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My latest books:
September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life
Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher
Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher