Saturday, August 25, 2012

Journey to the West - Tipping Points

I have in the past discussed some of the factors involved on the journey to the west. As I have aged, for example, I have passed through many different stages of my life: infant, child, teen, young adult, Mr., Sir, Grandpa, Pops, and now “Old Mr. So-and-So.” There are, of course, physical changes that accompany these various stages of life. There was a time, quite a long time, relatively speaking, when I had hair, nothing fancy but real more or less normal hair, brown and not unattractive. When I was a little boy my mother combed my hair in a fashion that she apparently thought reasonable, parted toward the right, and brushed over towards the left. I came to believe it was overly “Hitlerish,” but by then it was too late, it remained that way throughout most of my life. Eventually it began to turn slowly grey, and then, what was worse, it began to disappear, horrors, I was balding, and I could not deny it. Even so, I could more or less live with it, but then it became more serious, to the point where I had what is known as a “combover.” Unfortunately, this combover has become increasingly obvious to the point where it has now become somewhat ridiculous. At the moment I desperately need a haircut. But what to do, cling to a really silly combover or give in to reality and go for the truly bald with the fringe on top. This is not funny, it is a serious tipping point. I realize these problems confront different individuals at different ages, but this is me, now. I keep putting off the haircut while wrestling with this traumatic decision.

But this problem is insignificant when compared with the problem of increasing invisibility. I have found that once you reach a certain age (no doubt different for different people at different ages) you begin to become invisible. I mean, you don’t really physically vanish, people just no longer see you. When tasks arise that you once were routinely expected to perform others do them. They no longer even ask or expect you to do them. They assume you are unable to do them. This has nothing to do with the reality of whether you can do them or not, the assumption becomes on the part of others that you cannot. I have discovered that once this judgment is pronounced there is little or no point in trying to fight it. If you let it, it can be genuinely frustrating. But you must resist the normal frustration-aggression routine as if you become aggressive this puts you into another category entirely, what you might call the “cranky-old-man syndrome.” It seems inevitable that as you age, even though you remain alive, your life slowly slips away from you. In the world we now live in you become invisible in the sense of being useless, just a creature somehow still attached to the world and family, but basically inconsequential. In the world as it was throughout most of human history the elderly (I cannot bear the term “oldsters”) were considered the repositories of the accumulated knowledge of the culture. As they knew how things were supposed to happen, and how, they were both respected and consulted (at least until they became so old as to be truly senile). Now, however, as technology changes so rapidly, it tends to be the young who possess the knowledge and have to be consulted. Even small children often know far more about computers and all the new gadgets than even middle-aged adults. I guess you might consider this something like “Early onset obsolescence.” This, too, can drive you mad if you let it. Thus as you age and become increasingly invisible and obsolete, you have to be constantly on the defensive, it just doesn’t do to rebel too actively or complain too loudly, or even to withdraw too obviously, as these actions can threaten the status quo no matter how unrealistic it may be.

I believe it was Bette Davis who said, “growing old is not for sissies.” As my journey to the west continues I have found that is true, but it is also not for the thin-skinned, the inept, or the hopeless. Growing older requires survival skills, cleverness, innovations, determination, and strategies you did not anticipate or acquire while growing up, lest even those who claim to have your best interest in mind actually turn you into what it is they often erroneously think you are. Even in old age only the clever and the fittest survive.

The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.

Jane Wagner

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