Old Folks

March 7, 2011

A friend sent me a video clip of Ginger Rogers dancing with her 29-year-old great grandson. To say that, at 92, she's astounding would probably be an understatement.

But why she is astounding is the question. Is it because of what she can do? Or is it because of what people her age are expected to do?

I've argued for at least two decades that most people are far too willing to give in to old age. Just because it gets harder to do something you once did fairly easily doesn't mean you have to give up doing it. I know a lot of men my age who can't throw a baseball thirty feet, whereas I, though I don't approach major league speed, can throw one from the pitcher's mound and get it in the strike zone fairly often. Why can I do that? It's certainly nothing heroic. It's just because I've kept on doing it.

You can argue, of course, that there's nothing to be gained by throwing a baseball, which probably for most people is true. But there certainly is something to be gained, for almost everyone, by being able to carry a box up a flight of stairs, or shovel the snow off your walkway, or walk a crying baby to sleep. The point is you should pick the things you want to be able to do and then do them. Don't let yourself be deterred by the thought that you're too old. You're only too old if you can't do it. And the main reason, for most people, that they can't do it is because they stopped doing it.

We are a society which encourages old people to think of themselves as disabled. Many parking lots I see now have spaces close to the store entrances which are reserved for people over sixty-five. What could be more stupid? Why not reserve them for people who can't walk, whatever their age?

We surrender far too easily to physical handicaps thought to be caused by age which are actually caused by attitude and laziness. But these are as nothing to the defeats we suffer because of foolish beliefs about the mind.

What is the dumbest idea of all time, and perhaps the most destructive? It's the notion that the main use for our minds is career, and that when we retire from career, we have only about a third the need for mind that we once had had, and therefore, that we should pack away about two-thirds of our mental capacity. Yet because of that idea, that's exactly what many people do. My friend Ed Banfield, who for years was a professor at Harvard, told me once that at least half his colleagues, after they had retired, never again read a serious book. I don't know if Ed was right or not. But I wouldn't be surprised if he was.

I read a portion of an essay a couple days ago, written by E.B. White in 1937. He was commenting about Franklin Roosevelt's desire to see Supreme Court justices retire at seventy. The president was entirely wrong according to White. If you want to have age restrictions on the court, bar people between fifty and seventy, he said. "At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism. Their usefulness to the state is likely to improve after the span of life which the Bible allows them to complete."

From what I've seen, particularly of men in their fifties, I think he was dead right.

There are certain truths -- and many truths -- that are comprehended well only by old people. If society fails to make use of those truths because people think the elderly are too old, or because older people themselves retreat to the notion they don't have the energy any longer to engage in the fray, then society is grievously wounded.

There's a good argument to be made that human society, throughout its existence, has been seriously afflicted because scarcely anyone lived long enough to figure out the actual constitution of life. It may well be that society will be able to evolve toward something we could reasonably call intelligence only when people regularly begin to live past the century mark.

It is steadily confirmed -- by literature, by psychological studies, by the course of history -- that people, and especially people between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, lust for many things that aren't worth much over the long run. They chase goals they think will make them happy, or fulfilled, when those prizes end up delivering little that's meaningful to their lives. Why do they do that?

Might it be they seldom talk to anyone who has an expansive view, to anyone old enough to have an expansive view? Somebody should do a poll about how many people ever talk regularly or seriously with persons twenty years older than themselves. If it were possible to take one accurately, I'll bet the results would be surprising.

This is not to say that all old people are wise. They certainly aren't. Many old people are idiots. But a lot of them who are idiots have bought into the current mythology about the nature of old age. Don't pay much attention to anyone who thinks that because he's sixty-five he has the right to park closer to the store entrance.

Deterioration due to age is the most vicious enemy humanity has. Not to resist it fiercely, with all the spirit we can summon, is craven stupidity. If we could find a way to escape that stupidity, there's no telling what we might be able to do with the whole of life.

©John R. Turner

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