Aging and Atonement

You go through life accumulating personal embarrassments that, if you’re lucky, you can keep to yourself: youthful indiscretions, moments of cowardice or dishonesty, the once-crucial friendship allowed to wither, the tawdry one-night stand, the tawdrier ten-year relationship, the needless hurt inflicted, the kindness spurned — all the sorry detritus of an imperfect life lived imperfectly.

Most of these embarrassments could have been avoided by a smarter, more self-aware, less insecure person, but one of the benefits of advancing age is that you begin to forgive yourself for your deficiencies. The years scab them over and the pain of those old, secret shames begins to subside until you barely feel it. And most of them are secret, at worst known only to you and a handful of people.

And then, just when you think you’ve outlived them all, or found a personal equilibrium that makes them all moot, one more shame comes to claim you inevitably, more profound and public and irremediable than all the rest, and yet the least blameworthy: the shame of growing old itself.

I turn 70 this month, I’m embarrassed to say.

Yes, yes, I realize that embarrassment is not a socially appropriate reaction to my arrival at this milestone, and that the absolute worst sin someone of my age can commit is to make anyone else feel awkward about it. And yes, I know I’m supposed to proudly embrace my age, regard it as some sort of achievement rather than as one of the cheaper tricks time has played on me. I’m supposed to experience the fuss being made over it by well-meaning family and friends as a celebration of our good fortune in having each other, and of me and all my wonderful qualities, rather than as the outing of a personal defect.

But in the soup of feelings that this birthday evokes in me, embarrassment bubbles to the top. Feminist scholar Lynne Segal put it plainly: “How old am I? Don’t ask, don’t tell. The question frightens me.”* Me too.

This feeling is, of course, slightly insane. None of us is to blame for growing older. Aging isn’t a defeat or a moral failure. Yet we look in the mirror and feel as though we’ve failed, arrive at the cusp of yet another decade and feel as though the passage of all that time must have been an elaborate con job that we should have recognized earlier and somehow eluded.

We’ve internalized these feelings for good reason: we live in a culture that shames and juvenilizes the old, who are supposed to quietly collude in their own expulsion from life’s center stage, and be grateful for the bit parts that remain to them. The new first digit in my age will inevitably cause others to think differently about me, or so I believe. It will be assumed that I’m retired (which I’m not) and sponging off of Social Security (which I am), that I can’t hear or see well, that I may need help with my grocery bags or my testosterone levels, that I’m likely to have forgotten your name, or mine, or that I probably shouldn’t be driving, or drinking, or looking at a woman that way, or even, let’s face it, living. “You’re only as old as you feel,” we’re told. It’s a lie. In fact, you’re only as young as others think you are.

I shouldn’t complain. One can’t blame people for their raging ageism; it’s natural as rain. As a species, we still need to propagate, and that means youth always wins. In the ongoing pageant of human reproduction, the old have essentially nothing to contribute except voyeurism and babysitting services.

And ageism is inflicted even more pitilessly on women than on men. No one calls older women “distinguished” when they turn grey, or associates their wrinkled faces with hard-earned wisdom, or says that they look “rugged.” Fat old men are “prosperous”; fat old women are post-menopausal. With the rare exception of someone like Maye Musk, Elon’s mom, still modeling at age 71, older women are consigned to aesthetic oblivion with a ruthlessness that suggests real revulsion. Men get away with a lot throughout their lives, and turning old is no exception. But ultimately, the social disparagements that accompany advancing age know no gender boundaries.

I’m a terrible ageist myself. I’m constantly complaining about the slow old farts at the CVS, most of them probably younger than me, who wander the aisles in search of hemorrhoid cream and conversation, lingering over their prescription purchases as though they were taking out a mortgage; or at the airport, pretending to be impaired so they can board before everyone else, limping ostentatiously or lined up in their wheelchairs like bumper car drivers at a carnival, serene in their fraudulent infirmity. I call them the worst thing I can think of: geriatrics. I’m ashamed of these people, and embarrassed that I might be thought one of them.

But I am one of them, a member of the same obnoxious, self-centered generation that gave you the Age of Aquarius, disco, the Me Decade, and the inevitable insolvency of Social Security. We can’t avoid becoming living betrayals of our deepest sense of identity, since the very idea of aging is contrary to everything we were told made us special. Any generation that is the subject of a song by The Who is going to go through life being insufferable.

In our vanity we assumed that because our generation’s sheer numbers had commanded the world’s rapt attention to our adolescence, everyone would continue to fawn all over us in our old age. Wrinkles would become fashionable, we thought, politicians would court us, advertisers would glamorize our seniority. The culture would keep us company, just as it did in our teenage tyranny those many moonwalks ago.

But it hasn’t happened. Being old has not become cool. If anything, the culture’s obsession with youth has become outright pedophilic. My generation’s nostalgia is certainly ripe for exploitation, as this summer’s hoopla over the fiftieth anniversaries of Woodstock and Apollo 11 attest. But accelerating technological change has made us even more marginalized than past generations of the old. We don’t know a meme from an emoji, and think Facebook a marvelous way to envy-bomb our friends rather than the pernicious social virus that it is. Our vast numbers are a demographic curse, sucking billions out of public welfare programs and warping politics toward a tribal conservatism we would have thought contemptible back in the Age of Aquarius.

I can only apologize. I’m sorry about all those Woodstock retrospectives and moon landing documentaries eating into the time you’d normally spend binge-watching Black Mirror. I’m sorry about those old nags on PBS, interrupting a perfectly good Joe Bonamassa concert to shake you down for a contribution (I think I went to high school with some of them). And I’m really sorry that, now that we’re old, we former hippies and war protesters have become right-wing Republicans and moved to swing states.

Sorry, also, to use that word, “old,” especially in relation to myself. I know this is another no-no, often perceived as begging for contradiction. Feel free to contradict.

And yes, the definition of “old” is getting older. Medical advances and healthier lifestyles have lengthened life spans to a degree where turning 70 no longer means decrepitude, let alone one foot in the grave. Most “old” people report feeling decades younger than they are, and I’m no exception. I’m egotistical enough to think I look a lot younger than I am, and I’m certainly in better shape than most of the millennials I see bellying up to the register at Wendy’s.

I also take some comfort from the fact that when you’re truly old varies tremendously from person to person. In A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, the poet laureate Donald Hall, who died last year at age 89 and knew whereof he spoke, provided some sobering guideposts:

“You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed….You are old when the waiter doesn’t mention that you are holding the menu upside down….You are old when mashed potatoes are difficult to chew….”

No, not there yet.

There’s no question that the only proper response to having arrived at this point in a vastly lucky life is sheer gratitude. And I’m deeply, continuously grateful. I’m physically fit, surrounded by remarkable friends and family, and blessed with a loving wife who makes every day a gift. Though I’ve had my fair allotment of old-mannish ills – cataracts (lenses replaced), sudden sensorineural hearing loss (mostly recovered), frozen shoulder (mostly unfrozen), high blood pressure (managed), memory lapses (infrequent and minor) – they’re nothing compared with the physical insults common to my age, much less the harrowing cancers that some of my friends and relatives have faced.

In this light, my embarrassment at my new age looks vain and trivial. I can’t begin to imagine the shame of the septuagenarian whose solitude or illness seems to confirm the negation of worth that our culture visits upon the old. I’m enormously lucky, and owe him a visit.

But I’m also greedy. I want more and more of the lucky life I’m living, not less and less. Not only can I do the math, I resent it. I regret not having felt the passage of time more acutely, so that my aging from year to year might have been experienced more fully and honestly, and my age now really would be, as another sweet old lie has it, “just a number.”

For aging is, at bottom, the long foreshadowing of mortality, and that must be the deepest, most unspeakable reason for the stigma we assign to old age. Philosophers are at pains to point out that life everlasting would be an excruciating bore, but I’m here to tell you that I have great confidence in my ability to entertain myself ad infinitum, and would welcome the opportunity. I’ve read Andrew Stark’s diligent attempt, in The Consolations of Mortality, to prove that the finitude of life is a good thing, and was not the least bit consoled.

So allow me my embarrassment at becoming a mirror of our shared mortality, for arriving at a time of life none of us really foresees despite the fact it waits for us all, if we’re lucky. I’m embarrassed for all of us, in our various stages of incurable delusion about the permanence of life and the plenitude of time.

And for my birthday, in lieu of gifts, let’s forgive one another, you and I, for those delusions, and forget what day it is or what age we are. Forgive me, in your heart of hearts, for my age, and I’ll forgive you for yours. We’ll call it just another day, and say that age is just a number.

We could even throw a party.


* Segal, Out of Time: the Perils and Pleasures of Aging (2014).

4 thoughts on “Aging and Atonement

  1. Keith — right behind ya, buddy. My father, who died at 88, almost 89, and sharp as a tack until a week before said, “This growing old shit is not for sissies” (I have cleaned up the language a bit). He was right and so are you.

  2. Enjoyed your recent post; I have until December for my moment! Especially enjoyed your quote: Any generation that is the subject of a song by The Who is going to go through life being insufferable.

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