New wine in new bottles: the freshness of old age

The biggest surprise of old age is how new, how fresh, things feel.  Far from the prescribed cultural narrative—continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace—my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.   As Philip Roth said, when asked about his unexpected retirement, he asserted, without resignation or sadness, “I’m in a different stage of life.”

It is a difference that makes a difference.  Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”  I take that idea literally.  In old age, we are in unexplored territory.  Being an explorer in that territory is a privilege I never expected to have.

In a previous essay, I wrote young people seek independence.  For older people, freedom comes almost unbidden when the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight  Let me begin by counting some of the ways, small and large, that that freedom comes to our doorsteps.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually respond positively.  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There is the greater stillness in my body, so that I take more notice of the lilacs in bloom and the pine-scented paths on my walks, sights and smells that I had barely glanced in the rush of adult life.  The natural world is more alive to me at this stage of life.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirmed, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad things.  But, in the purest sense, there is change to challenge your adaptability and this can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

I am surprised to be alive.  My father died at fifty and I was long filled with the kind of magical thinking common to children.  If you think a plane will crash, then it will.  I imagined that my genetic heritage would bring me down at 50.  It didn’t, and I’ve had all these extra years, years that I didn’t expect, no less deserve—years that seem a heavenly gift.  I don’t appreciate that gift each day, though I wish I would, but I do so often enough to feel the last 24 years as a bonus.

I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script—of course not the whole of it—included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m almost 75 see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 75, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

Of all the things that change in old age, history seems the most unlikely.  I mean your personal history, your life story, which by this point is extraordinarily well-rehearsed, as you have told it to others and mused about it inwardly for decades.  Instead, my narrative keeps changing.  My father, who felt like such a rock, now seems such a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly ,but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  I see them now as younger people.  I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and changes they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  In ways, that makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood—not because they have actually changed but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but they are because they shake up everything.  If I’m really more like my mother—or even equally like her—then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomena.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to re-imagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this kind of freedom.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations, and expectations limit possibilities.

When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility of freedom in old age.

 

Who is that old guy in the mirror

The other day, as my grandson, Eli, and I crossed Mass. Ave in Cambridge, on the way to a shop where children select and paint pottery for firing, he took hold of my hand. We let go when we reached the other side. For reasons I can’t explain, I looked down at my hand, now gnarled and misshapen, and wondered what Eli’s thought of it. As a child, as I recall, I was put off by the wrinkles of elderly bodies. Eli didn’t seem to notice or care. But that got me thinking about aging and body imagery.

For the longest time, I liked the effects of aging on my body, especially my hands. They looked strong and weather beaten to me, signs of physical labor and a life well-lived. Recently, the weather has battered them even more. Not that I find them ugly. I still like the look but now I’m pretty sure others don’t.

That got me looking for clues about how common my experience was. I began reading in the psychological and sociological literature on body imagery, where I found pretty much what you’d expect. The aesthetics of bodily decline, for example, is profoundly influenced by culture. In a youth-oriented culture, smooth looks good and wrinkled looks bad. African Americans are more comfortable with large “body mass” than are Caucasians. Men bemoan growing guts and loss of muscles. Times are changing: Looking soft is unmanly even if you are slim. Women focus their displeasure on fat. As they age, their wrinkled, droopy, and heavy bodies damage their egos and they resent that comparable changes seem to make men look distinguished.

All of us—men and women, Black, White, Brown, and Tan—are encouraged to look young. We are taught to exercise, to make ourselves up, to cover unsightly parts of our bodies. The popular literature on staying young or looking “ageless”—and, by the way, looking ageless is supposed to make us feel ageless—has grown beyond the fondest corporate imaginations. Pop psychologists encourage the pursuit of agelessness, but more politically attuned psychologists tell us that agelessness is a pernicious form of “internalized agism.”

Most of us already know what the experts are saying: that our self-image is heavily influenced by cultural preferences, or, if you like, by cultural bigotry. But this knowledge does not help us to shed the cultural stigma. They are deeply ingrained. My hands are my hands. And the loose skin on Nora Ephron’s neck is hard to affirm. I could go on about my knees, after two surgeries and thousands of miles of hiking, tennis, and basketball. My legs just don’t look so good.

I have written numbers of essays whose core strategy is turning lemons to lemonade, finding new and affirming ways to understand experiences that have troubled us. But I don’t think that approach applies here. I know that some people try. For instance, there is a lovely article in the Huffington Post: 8 Artists Who Explore the Beauty of the Aging Body. And I see the beauty in Joan Semmel’s nude self portraits. I do. But they feel like exceptions to me.

Aside from culture, there is a second influence on body image that may point a way out of my dilemma: functionality. As long as our bodies do what we want, as long as we can trust them, they remain more temple than burden, and they are easier to affirm. “It may not look great,” we can say, but, through long practice, “it still works just fine.” There is research to show that sexual interest and activity continues for many of us well into old age. So it seems that we may look good and feel good to someone. Maybe there’s a kind of visceral imagery that can supersede the visual.

That’s an inspiring idea but let’s admit it, mostly our physical capacity declines over time and, at some point in old age, the decline is precipitous. That’s when it becomes harder to convince ourselves of our body’s beauty.
If I can’t find some smart or quirky way of affirming this old body, what’s left? Acceptance. That’s what I’ve always invoked when I couldn’t seem to change some aspect of my personality or social interaction. I try to relax deeply into whatever difficult reality I’m confronted with. I look at it straight on. No denial. No effort to make it any different than it is. And eventually, I grow less critical and more at ease with what I see.

Sometimes I feel skeptical about acceptance, wondering if it is any more than numbness. And numbness seems like an illegitimate solution. Aren’t we supposed to experience our feelings in all their intensity? Not necessarily. Why shouldn’t we permit ourselves the protective embrace of feelings like resignation and acceptance.

There is one further destination to this journey, though. The older I get, the more I seem to replace what I look like with who I am. I don’t think this is merely convenient, though the timing is clever. very good. I find that I am more reflective these days, that I spend more time think about the meaning of life and other such themes. In other words, I haven’t stopped looking in the mirror—heaven forbid—but the mirror that holds my attention has changed. If I am self-conscious, it is mostly about the state of my mind or the legacy I might leave. My vanity is more focused on the wisdom I have and have not achieved. In that light, this wrinkling body of mine seems like the right one to have.

Through the dark and into the light

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

Since I began my blog, friends and colleagues have expressed their concern about what they perceive to be a depressive strain in my writing.  I have mixed feelings about my dark side.  It can be painful but it has lent depth and insight to my life.  So I wrote an essay about the Blues, trying to explain how the very act of acknowledging and not avoiding dark feelings helped people move through them.  The essay proved interesting but not persuasive to my friends, which leads me to a different tack—putting what Winston Churchill called his “dark dog” into a cultural context.

In America, we are encouraged to be happy and urged to avoid or hide unhappiness.  There is a stigma attached to depression, a largely unstated belief that vulnerability is weak and unacceptable, particularly for men, who are taught from early childhood to mask their fears and anxieties.  More than one survey has determined that Americans believe depression is the result of a weak will or a character deficit.

Sometimes when people “worry” about me it sounds like they are also scolding.  Their concern sounds a little bit like an accusation.

When people point to my sadness, melancholy, or depression, my first feeling is shame.  My second feeling is denial.  Not me.  Then I want to distance myself from these prying eyes. This is what men do.

We’re not alone.  In many other cultures—Japan, for example—vulnerability must be avoided, and shows up regularly in stomach and digestive problems, which are acceptable.  The more martial and macho a culture, the more men transform vulnerability in to physical symptoms.  In American culture, women are said to “act in,” while men “act out,” often to the detriment of marital relationships and to a society that badly needs to look inward before leaping to military actions and diplomatic bullying.

I belong to another strain of manhood.  I was always plagued and blessed with a desire to understand myself as deeply as possible. I want to be happy but not at the cost of  the depth and wisdom I find in introspection.  I need to go below the surface to discover what moves me, what upsets me, what brings joy and relaxation, what made me effective.  These introspective journeys have been as natural to me as the running and jumping, the basketball, tennis, hiking—and the exuberant pursuit of ideas—that have also filled my life. They formed the foundation of my life as a psychotherapist and coach.

But let’s return to what I take to be my strain of manhood.  Many of the people we admire most have been subject to dark moods.  Here are just a few:  Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Edward Degas, Leonard Cohen, William Faulkner, Michelangelo, John Steward Mill, Sir Isaac Newton, John Keats, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  I feel tremendously enhanced by the company of these great depressives, whose capacity to brave the darkness, then combine it with the light to form complex and beautiful thoughts, I so admire.

I believe that it is impossible to reach towards insight and creativity without fully acknowledging fear, anxiety, and confusion.  According to the neuroscientist, Nancy C. Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while “creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.”

Writing for Scientific American, the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, summed up his research this way:  “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

The need to tolerate the dark is embedded in all of our religious traditions.  Buddha tells us that first reality of life is suffering.  All our efforts to avoid or deny this reality make us more superficial and rigid, unable to face and adapt to life’s great challenges.  Moses asks us to face—not accept—our enslavement to other people and their way of thinking.  With that insight, he begins to lead us towards freedom.  Jesus sees our suffering and takes it onto himself.  He doesn’t ignore it.

My first intentional effort to move through the darkness and into the light was as a young man.  I wanted to triumph over my fears, which meant I needed to see them clearly, understand them, know that I would survive the encounter with myself.  For me, this meant mustering all my courage because I was afraid of what I might find—my weaknesses, my limitations, my uncertainty, the many demons for which I did not yet have a name.  I did survive and feel very much richer for the effort: more comfortable with myself; and much more able to summon my courage when needed.

As I age, as the realization that the years ahead are not infinite, the search for wisdom has grown more urgent.  By that I mean the search for perspective, calm, joy, and freedom from fear become ever more alluring, ever more intense.  Each search begins with a feeling or thought that I need to come to terms with—as we all do—and attempts to move through the darkness and into the light.  That’s the road I’ve chosen.

Living Between Worlds

I grew up idealizing the intellectual life, probably wanting to realize my father’s barely articulated and utterly unrealized dream for himself.  Without the faintest idea of its origins, I yearned to be a learned man, a respected man, a secular version of an ancient Jewish tradition. By the time I entered college, I anticipated passionate, late night conversations about every topic under the sun, and hoped to form a community of like-minded friends.

Over the years, I have constructed my study as an homage to that vision, probably modeled on photographs of the studies of my intellectual heroes, William James and Sigmund Freud.   Even now, my study–with its shelves and shelves of books, ‘hi fi’ equipment, art and knick knacks–speaks to that ideal.  Each day, it surrounds and comforts me.

Recently, I’ve discovered what I have most liked about that imagery.  It’s the sense of belonging that I see in the photographs.  James and Freud seem so much at home in  their cultures, confident that they were the right men in the right place.

In some small way I have realized my dream.  I am a cultured man and belong to a small tribe of like-minded men and women.  I’d love my children and the many young people I’ve worked with to understand what this small achievement has meant to me, and what it would have meant to my father and my grandfather, how it signifies the upward passage of generations, from immigrant laborer to businessman to professional to intellectual. But I don’t think young people see it that way.  I might have won a prize and joined a club but the prize and the club appear to be outdated, unappealing, even invisible to them.

The best chance I had to join the intellectual tribe of my early dreams seemed to be academia but I didn’t find companionship during graduate school.  It felt staid and lacking in passion—not my tribe.  So I set out to test the hurly burly of life outside its gates, hoping to find a new community to work and identify with.  My work soon focused on helping others, as a psychotherapist, social activist, and nonprofit  entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I have been especially drawn to young people, with an emphasis on young people of color in nonprofit organizations dedicated to social welfare and social justice.  It turns out that they feel more compelling to me than university scholars .

Their identity as outsiders and their experience as immigrants or children of immigrants feels like the people I grew up with.  Until I went off to college at Harvard, for instance, I had never met a WASP, a Brahmin, a person whose cultural identity wasn’t hyphenated.  Every one of my acquaintances knew, first hand, how unacceptable they or their parents had been in America.  Everyone was fierce in insisting that they belonged.  Every one of them also felt like they were the real America. I feel more connected to them than to the intellectuals.  This tribe was closer to my heart.

In essence, it is their marginality that is deeply resonant to me.  Like me they are neither outsiders nor insiders in American society, which is how I have felt throughout my life.  I have never fully belonged to any group.  Like them, I have lived in between, on the margins.  This position, this identity, disturbed me for many years.  I felt strange and lonely—until I realized that virtually all of my close friends were also marginal.  We all had one foot in the establishment, with good jobs, professional status, and homes of our own,  and one foot in- left wing politics, eastern spiritual practice, or we were shaped by some deep personal “anomaly.”  They have been my community.

My professional life has consisted of one challenge after another to establishment institutions and theories.  In the seventies, we built the family therapy movement, challenging the old men of psychoanalysis, with their inward focus and refusal to look at the great wide world.  In the eighties, we tilted at the windmills of the American medical system, with its emphasis on cells and organs instead of people.  By the nineties we tried to take on corporate America’s indifference and, even, hostility, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of older workers.  It was hard work but great fun, and however much we felt like outsiders, we were deeply connected within our little cadres of rebels. It wasn’t the mainstream tribe but it provided a sustaining sense of belonging.

The young people with whom I’ve connected over the decades love hearing stories of those rebellious days.  They especially love stories of my being a provocative outsider, a position that makes them proud. In one, I am lecturing psychiatrists and psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Ether Dome, the hallowed hall of the first surgeries in America.  You have to be an insider to be invited to lecture there. The seats in the Ether Dome slant steeply upward.  The lectern is at the bottom and, as you crane your neck, it feels you’re talking up to the gods, which is how those men in white suits thought of themselves.  I tried to explain how important it was to look beyond the internal world of unresolved childhood conflicts and more towards the influence that families exerted on their immediate members.  Focus on people, not ghosts, I insisted.  Within ten minutes of the lecture’s start, the gods began to boo–literally, MDs booing.  Some began to leave.  Then I left, too, which, for some strange reason, shocked them.

I’m pretty sure that my mother would have enjoyed my provocations; and as the years have gone by, my father’s voice has yielded to hers and to her love of adventure.  Her favorite book was Kon Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdal’s wild journey on a reed raft across the Pacific.  My mother was a good suburban wife, I suppose, but not in her dreams, and not by mid-life, when her radical politics and budding feminism grew stronger—and with it, a sense of belonging with her compatriots.

I see now that I could never fully belong to one world when there were two powerful voices living within me.  I would always position myself between worlds—and grow comfortable in that place.

I am retired now and the temptation is, once again to retreat to my study, to the comfort of books, Beethoven, and paintings.  I could seclude myself in my condo development, mostly populated by older people.  Like everyone else, old people tend to gather among their own ‘kind.’ We see this all the time in retirement communities and in independent and assisted living facilities. There is such comfort in familiarity.

But I remind myself that I am a marginal man, most comfortable with membership in many tribes.  Then I increase the number of young people I take on to mentor and the number of nonprofit boards I serve on.  I very much need the freedom to move between worlds.  I very much need to end my life as I have lived it, on the margins, happily joined with my marginal communities.

On Being Adaptable

We can’t be blind to the deficits of aging, but we needn’t wallow in them.  The important question is how best to deal with decline in ways that bring satisfaction.  The eminent psychologist, Paul Baltes, loved to tell a story about the very eminent pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, that points the way.

Just in case you are too young to remember, Rubinstein may have been the greatest concert pianist of the twentieth century.  He played to sold-out houses well into his eighties, dazzling audiences with his virtuoso renditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky, and others.  He was known for his extraordinary vitality.  At an age when most musical artists slow down, Rubinstein was giving two concerts a week.  Even in his dotage, one critic wrote, he could “transmit the joy of music.”

One day, when Rubinstein was eighty-one, an awestruck young TV interviewer asked him how he had sustained his virtuosity so far into old age.  First, said the maestro, he plays fewer pieces, and not just fewer: he limits himself to those he loves and is still able to master.  This kind of Selection, Baltes tells us, is the first of a three-part strategy for successful aging.

The second part of the strategy is called Optimization.  Rubinstein practiced each of the selected pieces much more than in the past, and much more than he could if he continued to play a larger repertoire.  At an old age, he could prepare his chosen repertoire better than in his youth.

The third strategy required a kind of slight of hand.  “…to counteract his loss of mechanical speed he now used a kind of impression management, such as playing more slowly before fast segments to make the latter appear faster.”  This is Compensation.

Selection asks us to develop and commit ourselves to obtainable goals.  The goals vary from person to person.  You might want to paint landscapes, to construct a Japanese garden, or to visit exotic, distant places. The key is to carefully align your desires and your resources to attain your goals.  Once you identify your goals and decide you have a reasonable chance of reaching them, you have to commit to them.

There are two types of selection: elective and loss-based.  “Elective selection aims at achieving higher levels of functioning. In contrast, loss-based selection is a response to the loss of previously available resources that are necessary to maintain functioning.” For instance, I now walk to get in shape where once I ran.  Unless we want to give up, all of us need to accept the loss of some goals.  No matter how I dream, I’m never going to play basketball again, to take one absurd example. But I can take long walks and I can write for hours, and they take up the room once occupied by more demanding activities.

Baltes’ emphasizes elective selection. “Selection promotes successful aging in a number of ways. To feel committed to goals contributes to feeling that one’s life has a purpose. Furthermore, goals help organize behavior over time and across situations and guide attention and behavior.”  The very act of committed activity is health promoting.

As with Selection, we each seek optimization in varied and distinctive ways.  To take a simple example, we each need to figure out how best to train our aging bodies to hike a favorite trail or learn to dance the Tango.  We each decide how much time and energy we want to invest to optimize our chances of success.  I say, be realistic—you don’t want to fail and discourage yourself too much—but generally, aim high.

Research does too. “Trying to achieve growth-oriented goals is associated with a higher degree of self-efficacy and leads to positive emotions and enhanced well-being. In old age, when losses are prevalent, it might be of particular importance to sustain growth-related goals for promoting well-being, rather than focusing primarily on losses.”

Compensation need not be as tricky as Rubinstein made it.  It’s about finding alternative methods to achieve your goals.  Let’s say you want to build a beautiful Japanese garden.  When young, you might haul all of the rocks and soil by yourself.  When older, you can hire some young people to do the heavy lifting.  You’d still be the creative force behind the project.  Or, you still want to run a 10K race.  To do so, you might cut down on the training miles and increase the time on the yoga mat.

Compensation requires mental flexibility.  It asks you not to confuse the goal with the method of achieving the goal.  While keeping your goal in mind, think as freely as you can about all the possible routes to get there, and then choose the one that will most likely lead to success.

Baltes urges us not to compromise on our goals too quickly.  “…it might be more adaptive to maintain one’s goal by acquiring new resources or activating unused internal or external resources for alternative means of pursuing goals.”

The SOC model isn’t magic but it’s a damn good project design for living well during our later years.  It asks us to be thoughtful and open minded about what we want to do and what will give us satisfaction.  I’d bet that most of us have kept a lid on our own potential.  Take the lid off for a while, at least in your mind.  Then experiment before committing to goals.  Even the initial commitment may require a leap of faith.  If you’re going down uncharted waters, you can’t be sure about the outcome, but you do put yourself in position to learn what is possible and to grow in certainty.

Eventually, your new path will feel natural.  It will be easier to place your full resources behind it.  We all know how great it feels to put doubts behind and to go full bore towards some goal, however imperfect.  Engaged in that way, we literally lose self-consciousness.  As Arthur Rubinstein is when playing Chopin, we are at one with what we are doing.  We become timeless and ageless.  There is nothing better.

Introducing Time Goes By

Dear Readers,

I’d like to break precedent.  Instead of discussing my own ideas, I’d like to introduce you to a wonderful new friend and resource.

I’ve recently gotten to know Ronni Bennett,  who a mutual acquaintance calls the Empress of Aging.  Her Time Goes Byhttp://www.timegoesby.net/ , is the most delightful and informative blog on aging that you will find on the net.  She keeps you up to date on news and strategic thinking about aging, health care, and the politics of both.  Her blog often takes the form of moving, hilarious, and personal essays, written with a light and deft hand, through links to tv programs, webinars, John Oliver-type humorists, and music to remind us of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies.  In a recent conversation, Ronni confessed that she was imprinted by Ed Sullivan and her blog does, in fact, serve as a variety show for our generation—and others.  You’ll love it.

Barry

Old and Proud: We will not be defined by the standards of youth

I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for bringing James Baldwin back to us.  Just this week, I took my copy of The Fire Next Time,, with its browning and brittle pages, down from the bookshelf.  I bought it in 1964, my senior year in college, and underlined almost every word.  Each sentence is still shocking, strange, and resonant at the same time.  I knew nothing about growing up in Harlem at the time but felt passionately, as he did, that I did not want American culture to define me.

Baldwin tells us that his father was “defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”  When white people called him “nigger,” it was unforgivable.  But when he internalized their view and became invisible, even to himself, a man without an identity, that might have been worse.

Baldwin tells his nephew that “There is no reason for you to try to become like White people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”  Instead, “you must accept them and accept them…” And, by doing so, “force our brothers to see themselves as they are…”

It may be impertinent for a White man to say so but Baldwin’s cri de coeur also seems like a perfect battle cry for those of us who are aging: to force our younger brothers and sisters to see us as we are and, by doing so, to see themselves as they are.

American society wants old people to be young, which is how we are portrayed in the AARP Magazine, the flagship of affirmative aging.  According to the Magazine we should aspire to smooth skin and bright smiles; long hikes, sexual prowess, and working for as long as we want; to financial security and an upbeat disposition; and to ticking off the items on the bucket list we created to make up for unfulfilled lives.  The degree to which we imitate young people is the degree to which we can affirm ourselves.  In other words, we are enjoined to be anything but old.

While this injunction is silly on the face of it, we have absorbed it.  We are complicit, especially when we try to imitate youth.  In imitation we betray ourselves.  By the standards of youth, we are ugly, slow witted, graceless, and impotent.  We are defined, not by who we are but by our failure to be effectively young and, conversely, by an ineluctable movement towards frailty and death.

This youthful pretense magnifies our shame.  We are ashamed of our forgetfulness, our lined faces and crinkly skin, our diminished muscle mass and our increased fatty tissue, and our need to be cautious in the out-of-doors.  What’s more, these current ‘failings’ bring back ancient wounds.  Even as youth, we weren’t always beautiful, brilliant, agile, and bold.  We were taught to be ashamed then, which is now aggravated in old age.

Shame is a terrible feeling.  It isn’t like guilt, which focuses on what you have done or failed to do.  It speaks to your whole being.  It is being unworthy, unattractive, unloved.  It makes you want to crawl into a cave, to be unseen and unknown.  In old age, there is nothing worse than shame.

We will do almost anything to avoid it, even try to be someone or something else, like trying to look and act young.  We will cover our shame with anger, becoming the angry old men and women of satirical movies. Anger at least keeps people and shame at a distance.  We will allow ourselves to be seen as adorable—nice elderly people and doting grandparents.  If we don’t appear challenging, others won’t challenge us, or so we tell ourselves.  We hold back much of who we are.  We become withdrawn, no matter how lonely it makes us.

James Baldwin asks Black people to see themselves without the filter of White society.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, his partial reincarnation, doesn’t think that’s possible and urges his son to withdraw.  I am not sure if aging people can free themselves from the imagery of a youth-oriented culture.  But, short of withdrawal, we have to try.

To begin, we must ask: what makes us distinctive.  It is partly the losses we have incurred, physically and emotionally.  We cannot deny that.  If we do, we are giving in to ‘them.’  But look closely, my friends.  There’s something beautiful in the experience that is written into the lines of an older face.  There is something ancient, almost eternal, in the laughter when it comes forward.  What about the knowing glances in response to petty conflicts that we will no longer join.  What about the depth acceptance in our friendships.  There is wisdom in that acceptance.

When old people study and think about new subjects, there is a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that they draw on, whether younger people want to benefit from that knowledge or not.  There is perspective and calm that lead to sound judgments.  There is wisdom in these judgments.  There is greater understanding that each, new sunrise is to be cherished.  Not in every old person, of course.  Not in as many old people as we might hope.  But this is the distinctive potential of old people who affirm themselves as they are, not as the absence of youth.

Baldwin tells us that, by being ourselves, we have the capacity to help others to see themselves more clearly.  Baldwin means that White people avoid themselves by externalizing their own fears and inadequacies.  By focusing their contempt and anger at Black people, White people can ignore the contempt and anger they feel towards themselves.  We see this in glaring form among the White Trump voters today, these defeated and abandoned men who momentarily lift their self-respect by venting their rage at immigrants, elites, and people of color.

Young people, with our complicity, do the same to us.  They do not want to face their inadequacies and they do not want to know that they are human, that they, too, will grow old.  They don’t want to look directly at our wrinkled skin.  They spend inordinate hours trying to be beautiful because they fear being old and ugly.  They don’t say ugly but they mean ugly.  They don’t want to face their own future.

Our challenge is to help them to see the beauty of life through its many stages, through all of its pains and triumphs.  We have the opportunity to make them less afraid, and to help them to celebrate life’s full passage.  Not by preaching or teaching them directly but by being wholeheartedly ourselves.