Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As children, few occasions rival birthdays in terms of excitement and import. Christmas, maybe, which though glorious, we’re forced to share with others. Our birthdays are days only for ourselves. They are, in folklore and dreams, if not in actuality, occasions of mirth and merriment, of presents and sweet treats.
Yet it seems the older we get, the more we grow dissatisfied with the passage of time. Even people in their 20s will shudder when being reminded of an upcoming birthday —
I’m getting so old, they’ll lament, and with good reason. For what is there to look forward to in old age, in our modern perception?
In a few months, I’ll turn 25. A quarter of a century. Closer to 30 from there on than 20, and implicitly, to my own demise. Yet arguably, it’s not death itself that terrifies, rather the certainty of what precedes it. To my generation, old age is nothing admirable.
Yes, we were taught to respect our elders, but more so out of pity than genuine regard. Be nice to Grandma, she’s got a bad hip. She’s lived more than you, and where once, that would’ve entailed amassed knowledge, now, it’s just a byword for fragility.
We are careful around our parents and grandparents, and perhaps rightly so. As we get older, our physical bodies begin breaking down on us. The wheels keep turning, but they’re running out of steam, as the late Warren Zevon once put it. So we tiptoe around the grandmother with the bad hip, and the grandfather with the wobbly knees. We help with groceries, and roll our eyes when they fail to keep up with technology.
Why? We can afford it. We’re the young ones now. It is, as promised, our time.
Yet even now, we seem haunted by the knowledge that it won’t be forever. Sooner or later, our time will pass, and what is there to look forward to, other than unreliable body parts?
Inevitably, we worry about losing our moment in the sun, but more so, we fear getting older, because in our 21st century eyes, being old is not in the slightest desirable.
We’ve arrived at a place where the old are perceived as weak, gullible, vulnerable, almost in a sense, parasitic. Gone are the days when a tribe’s elders were lawmakers and wise women. Now, we humor Grandma by listening to her relationship advice, but once, we might’ve been grateful for this imparted wisdom.
Though the slow demise of tribe wisdom is difficult to pinpoint, a few potential explanations come to mind.
We wised up, for a start. Or rather, Wisdom became instantly accessible. Ever at our fingertips, Google blows our once knowledgeable elders right out of the water. And with many older folk only holding a limited grasp of modern technology, it’s easy to think we’re smarter than old people simply because we can type faster.
Aside from technology, one might also point the finger at science for vastly prolonging human life. Famously, rather than hold back the entire pack, the old wolves who can no longer run are left behind to die. But now, science has eliminated that possibility, without providing our elders with the respect and utility needed for true meaning.
Imagine living in a society that does everything it can to keep you alive as long as possible, but doesn’t, truth be told, want you, or know what to do with you.
Another potential explanation for our shift in perspective is how we look at old age, in general. The existence of cosmetics and plastic surgery allows us to fight old age whichever way we can. Demands it, practically. Wrinkles are to be covered. Expensive lotions be bought to prevent crow’s feet, or sagging. Those couple white hairs are enough to warrant a dye-over. And if all else fails, the operating table is always available for a quick nip and tuck.
Anything is justified, if it conceals old age. And it’s your duty to do anything and everything not to look old.
Naturally, growing up in a society that bombards us with this message from a young age, we’re left with a skewed vision of what it is to grow old. Where white hair was once a token of wisdom, it is now something to turn a blind eye to, and instantly paint over.
It makes one wonder where the wisdom went, doesn’t it?
One final explanation I can imagine is our global obsession with productivity. We are pressed very hard (both by our surrounding media, and peer groups, but also internally, by our own mind) to grind, give it our all, put in our daily sweat, strive, create content, work at full speed.
It works, too, though it’s a limited-time deal. Eventually, we all hit burnout. And while, at 24, I’m able to shake off the burnout in a few days, and jump back on the grind, I’m aware that, as I get older, I’ll lose that ability (not to mention progressively damage my mental circuits and inner sanctum).
As we get older, productivity slows. And to a productivity-obsessed society, that essentially renders us useless. Not to mention undesirable.
Why honoring our elders is buried treasure…
Just for clarity, I don’t mean all elders, by default. You can as easily run into assholes at 80, as you can at 20. In that respect, white hair alone should not equate a free pass.
The older I get, the better I understand how my own lived experiences are shaping and enriching my voice and my perception of the world, but it’s a double-edged sword. The more confident I become in that perception, convinced I don’t need no borrowed wisdom. Why should I need someone older telling me, when I can figure it out myself?
And yet, playing it by ear, and shunning my elders, I inevitably turn on my heels. I become fearful and apprehensive of my own knowledge and acquired wisdom, since I have nothing to judge it by. Or worse, I come to define myself not as an evolving spirit dancing through this world, but simply by my opposition, by my being young, and implicitly opposed to all that is old and outdated.
I find that my disregard for old age only breeds conflict and inner (and outer) turmoil.
As teenagers and young adults, we’ll push away our parents because they don’t get it. They’re of the past, and this is our world.
In middle age, the children of elders (or perhaps, already orphans) we will shake our heads in disbelief at our aging parents or relatives. Refusing to grow, to keep up with the times, even as we ourselves are already slowing down, also. Believing what they hear on the television, instead of, like us, blindly trusting what we read this morning on Facebook.
Yet these are differences of nuance, not essence. It’s not that we are necessarily wiser. We are but younger, and in that, justified in our disregard. Which keeps us stuck in a perpetual conflict. With our inner child, with our actual children, with our parents, and elderly relatives. With our coworkers, and our public figures. We are a tribe divided who, orphaned prematurely of its elders, can now only cast out and repudiate the elder-ly.
Arriving at middle age is agony for those who cannot accept the mature beauty of autumn. They see their wrinkles hardening into lines, and new liver spots appearing every day, without the compensating mellowing in their soul. Without the rites of the elders, they cannot look forward to holding a position of honor in their society, nor in most cases will they treasure their own wisdom. For some, even the dignity of death dare not be contemplated.
The above quote, plucked from analyst and author Marion Woodman’s The Pregnant Virgin, reminds one that the only guarantee for graceful ageing is by redesigning our perception of old people. Ideally, as early as possible, whether it be fifty-six, twenty-four, or even, as toddlers.
It’s only by reinstating our tribal elders — be they grandfather, or some other arch-master of our in-group — as sources of wisdom, elegance and authority, that we can reverse this looming terror of old age, and death.
We stand, as ever, at a crossroads between two alternative views.
Old age can remain, as it is for many now, frightening, and shameful. A lonely plane of superfluousness. Old age can also be a time of slow sailing, of peace, of (as Woodman so brilliantly puts it) “compensating mellowing of the soul”.
Likewise, death can be something secretive. Depressing. Tear-your-hair out. Or it can be noble. That was one of the things that always drew me to the Dylan Thomas poem I quoted in the beginning. Even as the grieving-son-to-be (Thomas’ father was inevitably staring down his own demise at the time), the poet manages to hold in his hand not only the grief of death, but the nobility and natural beauty of that final bow.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
The deciding factor between these two markedly different perceptions is not, as we’re led to believe, external. It doesn’t exist in some far-off final reckoning, but within, in the here and now. That being said, how will old age find you?
Thank you for reading! I’m fairly scatterbrained, and this was one of the many random subjects that pique my interest.
I recently put out my first book (the first in a fantasy trilogy), and am working on the next two. So there’s a chance I’ll be talking about that, sometimes.
So if you’re someone who enjoys that kinda writing, well, why not subscribe? It’s free. And I’m desperate. So there, honesty.