Saturday, November 15, 2014
Aging, Aspiration, and Activism
© Charles D. Hayes
If you are getting on in years and facing the reality that time is running out, you may experience an existential alarm that rings erratically and gets increasingly louder. You breeze by the aging markers of 40, 50, 60, and then, all of a sudden, it seems you are elderly. More and more, I find instances of people being described as elderly who are years younger than I am.
For some people like me, being elderly comes with an urgent call for perspective, a pressing need to be realistic about time. When we’re finally able to put aside all illusions about our mortality and fully realize that we are experiencing the final chapters of life, everything begins to look different. Many of the myths we have grown up believing are shattered by the clarity of oblivion.
A large body of evidence in existential psychology shows clearly that the prospect of death affects us deeply at both a conscious and unconscious level. Although the most common strategy in the past seems to have been to deny one’s approaching demise, recent research suggests that a straight-up acknowledgement and overt conscious awareness of one’s forthcoming death can add greatly to the quality of day-to-day experience by forcing us to see more clearly and allowing the things we really value to stand out.
The realization that time is short can seem like a meaningful civil comeuppance in that it tends to cut through all of the platitudes and clichés we’ve heard about the ideological nature of freedom that comes with being an American citizen and with having grown up in a country where people are accustomed to thinking of themselves as being free in the greatest nation on the earth.
The prospect of an abbreviated future exposes the idea that genuine freedom is different from popular opinion. To be truly free one has to have the ability to see through illusions, to defy the herd’s desperate need to conform, and to enjoy the privilege of using one’s time as one chooses. It means being able to pursue one’s interests and treat the important things in our lives as if they really matter, regardless of what others think, say, or do.
Once you begin to think like this, you may find it hard to believe that you ever bought into the notion that time is money, because you can’t buy more time. If you have enough money, you can spend what time you have as you please, but such thinking reveals our culture to be a social arrangement that indentures millions of its citizens to a life of poverty. This situation has grown out of an arbitrary use and abuse of power based on counterfeit assumptions, lip service about values, and an imagined sense of tribalistic superiority that thrives on advantage and strives to maintain advantage with arrogance, contempt, and a willingness to go to any extreme necessary to prevail.
As Americans we grow up being taught a history so whitewashed, so egregiously out of sync with the realities of the past, that it’s little wonder the stories we wind up believing about our past are mythic fantasies. History shows that we are easily distracted, routinely duped, and so effectively manipulated politically that we spend little time paying attention to the things we should. Politicians in both parties routinely practice bait and switch.
Our future depends on high-order technology, while the real political power lies in the psychological manipulation of poorly educated citizens by shifting the blame for inequality to the least powerful among us, those who are without echelons of paid lobbyists to rig an advantage—those who are unable to effectively represent their own interests. Scapegoats offer antagonists a reliable distraction that works nearly every time.
By any objective criteria, moneyed interests have hijacked the original aspirations of America as a democracy driven by the attributes of meritocracy and the idea that citizens require some measure of leisure in order to become active participants in their own governance. That America has become a plutocracy is undeniable, and claims to the contrary are disingenuous by any standard. It’s surprising how clear this reality becomes when one’s future is small.
The angst that comes with age is both a curse and an opportunity, a dreaded feeling and also a clue that there is something to get beyond, something that can be improved. As we age, nostalgia—if it doesn’t itself become a habit of excessive distraction—often presents itself as a method of fixing something wrong in the present by comparison with something worthy in the past, although care has to be taken not to judge the past with selective memory.
For millions of our citizens, real freedom is little more than a cliché. There are myriad ideological excuses for America’s growing inequality, some of which are very sophisticated and sound convincing, but none of them are good enough to justify it. None, zip, zero.
That a significant number of our population can spend a lifetime of hard work at wages that guarantee poverty while a few individuals loot America’s corporations under the phony guise of excellence is ludicrous. What’s even more preposterous is that so many people can be persuaded to accept such contrived inequality as adequate living conditions and be so confused about the real essence of freedom.
The tactic of using the virtue of hard work as a divisive cultural weapon is rendered sterile and infantile by the reality that much of what is done that we called work has an enormous negative economic effect on our citizens and the planet. To claim that a significant percentage of our population is devoid of the virtue necessary to earn above-poverty wages is patently absurd, and to indenture generations to financial institutions to pay for college to qualify for jobs that won’t pay enough to retire the debt is a national disgrace.
When the decades have stacked up behind us like cordwood, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to acknowledge that many of the things we were taught to accept as truths were really distractions manufactured to keep order by those with enough power to make people believe that freedom is the ability to switch from one low-paying job to another instead of having enough economic equity to have the time and leisure to learn to become fully vested citizens.
But then, how else could you create a society in which executives could run companies into bankruptcy and yet walk away with enough largesse to live freely and never work again without citizens taking to the streets in protest? Speaking for myself, a lifetime of study reveals that history is one longsuffering attempt to justify the power of those with the authority to write it.
Unfortunately, the majority of magazines and websites for seniors these days are so superficial and so shallow in their content that, if anything, they add to the angst of aging. So the bottom line here is that the last chapters of life are where the whole book of one’s life needs to end with a perspective which allows for the possibility that one’s existence will have made enough sense that something of value might be shared with those who will survive us.
Imagining what life could be like if we tamped down the contempt that results from tribalistic pretention is much easier to do when we remove ourselves from the equation and consider the possibility of achieving the kind of civilization where it would be commonly accepted that everyone’s life really matters, not just those who have mastered the ethos of greed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues that many of the economic problems we face occur because the people making the decisions have no skin in the game, so to speak. In other words, they have nothing to lose. Then contrast John Rawls’ Theory of Justice advocating creation of a society in which the people cutting the economic pie do so under conditions that bar them from knowing which piece they themselves will get.
Now keep both of these notions in mind as you consider how objective we might be in offering feasible advice for a society that we won’t be alive to see. In other words, imagine you have no life in the game except through your kin and progeny who will live on after you. If this kind of objectivity can’t be trusted, what can?
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