Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Act your age

Four Cones, Ursula von Rydingsvard, National Gallery of Art, cedar and graphite.

Human beings are not designed to be healthy or live very long lives, no we are not. We're designed to be really motivated to, and very good at, making babies. As a species, we have excelled at the making of babies and oh my are we ever motivated to try. Sex is everything to our species. It is such a pleasure that we are now in a place where sex often has nothing to do with the instinctual urge to procreate. The instinct is there for sure, but we have added a lot of flourishes to it. We have turned sex into a high art of expression, connection, and creative inspiration. We are so clever.

We are down with the idea of sex, we surely are. It's the successful completion of pregnancy, and particularly labor and delivery, that is so difficult. Until very recently, women and babies died all the time in the process of childbirth. Our heads are so big. Babies and mothers still die regularly from childbirth, actually, though in my culture we have made some progress in helping babies be safely born.

I could write another post about this leap in evolution that we're now in the process of experiencing. Our brains are learning to function differently in order to adapt to the changing climate, hence we will not have to grow bigger heads to accommodate bigger brains as we have in the past. That evolutionary strategy, of increased cranial size, will no longer work. Instead, we are changing not only how we think, but how we think about how we think.

But that's not what this post is about. It's about we old people and how we just have to stop buying in to the idea that old age is so horrible. We have to stop pretending to be younger. We must stop - for god's sake - our grousing about how we wish we were young again. Old folks: KNOCK IT OFF!

I know it is instinctual to wish to be young, because it's only while young that we can make babies. This is the most foundational instinct we have.

Make. Babies.

Up until recently, there weren't that many old people. One hundred years ago the average life expectancy was fifty. In my grandparents' generation, living to sixty was an extraordinary accomplishment. Living to one hundred, almost unheard of. As a species, we have always been sickly, which is why healing is the oldest art, and why there are so many different approaches to healing. We are tender and need a lot of help. It was almost a miracle to live a long life until recently.

What I imagine is that old people before the modern era were revered for bucking the statistical probabilities, or were viewed in the same way as a foreign exchange student, unusual and therefore exotic in some sense.

Now there are so many old people, oh my. Folks of every age are scrambling to adjust. The greatest generation parents lived long enough to be put into assisted living, then nursing homes and wheel chairs, where they withered away. We boomers want none of that kind of experience. We dream of old people communes with younger people coming in to help now and again. Capitol Hill Village is a perfect example of the way my generation is trying to accommodate the reality of our long, long lives.

I wonder what the kids of my generation will do? They're too young right now to imagine it's going to be a reality for themselves. They're way too busy doing young adult things like expanding their fiefdoms, being successful, climbing the ladder in some way or another, establishing themselves. Also they are very busy making babies or at least thinking about sex all the time. This is perfectly healthy and normal. Old age shouldn't seem real to a 30 or even a 40 something.

One thing that would really help them figure out better solutions to this fortunate dilemma is to actually look forward to it. The only way for us to set a good example is to stand tall and be proud of our longevity.

I often decry the rampant ageism that's part of my society. It's every bit as serious as the weight thing. Yet we old people, who should know better, contribute to the ageism by lying about our ages, getting hideous plastic surgery, and using the word "old" as if it means being a total, helpless deadbeat who smells funny.

People: you can be a total, helpless deadbeat who smells funny at any age! I mean, really.

The fact that we can't have babies any longer, and mostly don't care much about trying, is a Good Thing. There are plenty of humans - we don't have to have more of them. What we need is a body of people who are willing to hold history, to be grounded and light hearted, active, thoughtful. We could be great elders, wise advisors, to the grandchildren. They could use some help from people who have been around the block once or twice. But why would they ask us when we're knocking ourselves out trying to pretend to still be young?

We could guide, reassure and encourage the grandchildren. We could show them by example how wonderful it is to live a long life. Why don't we?


Kerry said...

Great post. I don't mind being the age I am, although sometimes when I look in the mirror I do wonder who that person is.
Assuming one is in good health, it is pretty great to be old enough to not to have babies. So glad to be free of that.

Reya Mellicker said...

Me, too.

When I look in the mirror, at last I recognize myself. As a younger woman, a glance in the mirror was always a shock.

You're one of the good ones, Kerry. Our culture does not support us. It's crazy.