From a lecture given 17th October 2012
WHAT ARE OLDER PEOPLE FOR?
The profit motive, the mass media’s love affair with the new, and the anxiety provoked by growing old in a youth obsessed culture have led millions to surrender their faces to the war on wrinkles. We are being asked to unmake what we have spent a life time making. What do we receive in return for this sacrifice? Not youth. Instead we are given, at best, the facsimile of youth. Expressionless, passion, and history are pillages in the pursuit of youth’s fresh blankness. People fear wrinkles because of what they seem to say about us. They are the sum of all our days we have lived and will never live again. They tell us our story even when we do not want that story told. Even the attempt to raise them becomes part of what is written on our faces. We – the doers, the movers, the shakers, the achievers, the rocks of our families and communities – are being written upon. It shocks us to see ourselves, for the first time as paper and not the pen we imagine ourselves to be. Wrinkles are painless and harmless. They are us and we are them.What would it be like to live in a society that adored wrinkles? The idea may seem laughable at first, but for millennia, living to a ripe old age was an exceptional achievement and was often recognised as such by society. All this self induced anguish might serve some purpose if it prodded us towards a re-examination of our longevity. Wrinkles give us a way to begin such a conversation, but it is just a start. Grey hair and facial lines are only the first signs of something much more menacing. Finding a new wrinkle on wrinkles is one thing; plumbing the true nature of our longevity present a much more exciting and demanding challenge.
This playing around with words asks us to imagine growing into an old age defined by full development, maturity, awareness readiness and advancement – this really would be an opportune time. Instead we are mired in a highly negative view of ageing that envisions a one-way trip down the long road towards disease, dementia, disability and death. Peaches but ripen, but human beings, it seems, cannot. Though we are all aware that of the real and often unpleasant changes that come with advancing years, we lack a concept that fully recognises the positive elements of ageing. It is as if our longevity consists solely of deep, forbidding shadows. This emphasis is perhaps the most damaging consequence of contemporary society’s glorification of youth. Those who seek a more complete understanding of longevity, an understanding capable of embracing both light and shadow, conduct their search within a culture that rarely misses an opportunity to emphasise the negative aspect of ageing. The positive dimensions of our longevity remain, for now, present but unseen.
The decline that accompanies ageing is real and important (it helps explain why we die when we get old) but it is much less than the whole story. The danger is that we allow a thoughtless acceptance of what seems obvious to obscure deeper, more meaningful insights into age and ageing. Even though more than half of the normal human life span is spent ageing, we understand very little about the potential of the ageing process. The powers of old age remain too often devalued or outright hidden from us.