I am closing in on that age noted by my parents years ago as one entry point into elderhood: when the U.S. President is younger than me. With Obama, I’ve just squeaked by: he is sixteen months older than me. If Hillary or Bernie win this one, I may be okay at least for another four years. That does seem part of either of their appeal—the wisdom and equanimity they must have accumulated during long, eventful lives.
In general, though, we seem to lack positive archetypes for older people, especially women. NPR’s Ina Jaffe has reported about issues facing older Americans for years, and even she doesn’t have a good word to refer to them. Polls are inconclusive: most older people don’t like any of the usual words. But the problem is more than skin deep:
“When I told [my granddaughter] I was an old lady, she said, no you’re not, and this was when she was about 5 years old. And I was really struck at how even at that young age she had to kind of comfort me and tell me that I wasn’t really old. And it makes one think about how it’s such a negative thing and even little children seem to know that being old means somehow being degraded.” ~ Laura Carstensen, head of the Stanford Center on Longevity
In a recent segment, Scott Simon asked Ina Jaffe, “Is the problem actual or lexical?” She remarked that this failure of language points to a general discomfort, or distaste, for ageing. As the 5-year-old quoted above demonstrates, the cultural shadow of ageism blankets everyone, young and old. The cult of youth has been around for long enough that most of us have a vague feeling of getting older as a contagious disease that we’re trying not to catch. The norm is to shut older people up in homes so they can’t mix with the general population.
This is a shame because we lose access to life experience, wisdom, and valuable perspective. It’s also a great loss because, against cultural pressures not to, many elders are also actively working on integrating their psyches, befriending their shadow, encountering lesser-known aspects (feminine energies, intuition, creativity, empathy, caring). They may be making peace with discarded parts of themselves—embarrassing or shamed or wounded or traumatized parts. Archetypcally, this might be an inner child, but it could be anything: a domineering father, a distant or absent mother, a trickster or soldier.
This sort of work can be done at any life stage, but elderhood is a good time because there tend to be fewer demands and distractions. Families have grown and gone into the world, physical activity may have slowed, work may be less all-consuming, whether by choice or circumstance.
It’s fascinating to see how the shaming and blaming our culture does to anyone not in the sanctioned “majority” affects us as individuals. Being a woman has given me a lifelong view of this. There is a constant pressure to fit in, to confirm to male rules and standards—everything from dress to vocabulary to work habits. Any deviation is swiftly and severely punished with ridicule, rebuke, ostracism, demotion, and marginalizing.
This goes on in every segment of society that does not occupy the pinnacle of privilege, the hierarchy of worth and value. So, anyone who is not male, white, youthful, wealthy, famous, well-educated (but not too much), strong, healthy, vigorous, possessed of an ideal body mass index, confident, and extroverted is automatically on a lower rung of status.
You can see how this quickly becomes an absurdity. The insidious paradox of these entirely subjective hierarchies is that no one can ever be perfect enough to occupy the tippy top of the heap. It requires an exercise of force, control, power, and hubris to get there. Even violence.
The current Presidential race is a good illustration of this. Violence of ideas and of language betrays the aim of these men to get to that pinnacle by any means necessary. The popularity of someone like Donald Trump, who is constantly telling us that he is the best, points to an unacknowledged longing to master the hierarchy.
We are so indoctrinated to the world of hierarchy that we are rarely aware of it, let alone have the space to wonder about alternatives. Ronald Wright’s book, “A Short History of Progress,” details the dangers of enforced hierarchies, historically, in the collapse of seemingly invincible civilizations, one after another. As an historian, his job was not to suggest alternatives, but the stories in his book should be enough to motivate a serious search for them.
This search could be led or at least initiated by those of us who have been marginalized by a society bent on ranking and culling and controlling. And by that I mean, all of us, because, interestingly, everyone in a hyper-hierarchical culture has been marginalized in some way. Even wealthy white men, though it’s hard to imagine how. Some of them are unhealthily overweight, so that’s something.
Hierarchies are useful frameworks, for without some sense of order, we descend into anarchy. Natural systems have an order at every scale, from the sub-atomic, to the cellular, to organisms and ecosystems. Hierarchy is one aspect of living systems, but as a mental model for human affairs, we do well to exercise caution and leave a great deal of room for interpretation. Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs is a good example. It’s immediately understandable that basic needs like safety and shelter are shared by all. However, it would be a distortion to see it as a value judgment, relegating people in poverty to lower stages of spiritual development—which is simply not accurate, in any case.
I am not advocating any sort of revolution or war of us versus them, or get-yours-before-someone-else-does. I am merely pointing out that many of us are feeling the urge to speak up. I have checked this with a number of women friends and colleagues. Many of us feel a great pull to bring more feminine energy to situations, problems, and relationships—in our kitchens, in boardrooms, and the halls of legislatures.
As elders, what is the call? To speak up for the mysteries and depths of the psyche. To offer profound wisdom, hard won over a lifetime. To contribute, to be of service, to mentor, now that the pressures to earn and get ahead may have lessened.
Of course, this speaking up is not limited to women and elders. I like to imagine a world if even 10% of us stood up and defied the marginalization of enforced hierarchy, with its attendant slide into self-serving competitiveness. I love the idea of living in a culture with plenty of room “at the top.” I think we would find that hierarchies are more subtle than we imagined, and constantly shifting, more like improvisational dance than marching.