Lying About My Age: A Reflection on Ageism
I am seriously thinking about lying about my age. Of course it’s impossible. The internet has my age engraved in perpetuity.
I notice the difference immediately after my most casual face-to-face social revelation of the “number” – even if it is merely a reminder to my friends and my children. The change in expression is immediate, and the processing in the receiver’s brain, while subliminal, is obvious.
In a flash I have changed my status from respectful and collegial and transformed it suddenly to “over the hill,” someone to be tolerated, politely and diplomatically endured but no longer consequential. The reaction is typical and understandable. It is built into the life cycle, a generational flaw that carries few exceptions. It is hard to reeducate people to the notion that humans are not like socks, where one size fits all.
What I have begun to realize and which has motivated me to write this screed is that, whether deserved or not, one’s number reveals one’s category and my category and those of my peers sends the message of “tolerate but irrelevant.” It is a form of bias that closes the door on the wisdom that only first hand experience can convey.
The fact is that my “number” and upwards is shared by many people who are still very much involved, active participants in busy and arguably important human endeavors. We may be merely statistical survivors but we are still out there, a senior cadre of wisdom and experience that cannot and must not be consigned to the rubbish bin of contemporary history. We are still climbing the hill and are not yet at the summit heading downward.
We have witnessed the good and bad choices by politicians, journalists, academics, and various leaders in numerous other occupations that collude to create our culture. We have observed their many follies and their successes, have walked through the mountains of corpses of the last century, the stupidities of unworkable ideologies, and have seen the glories of science that have vastly improved our health, longevity and lifestyles.
In the U.S, there are six million in the number category of which I speak. Admittedly some of that group are incapacitated physically and mentally. But there are millions still in heavy involvement in contemporary life, contributing their experience, insight, imagination and creativity to make positive change in society.
There may be skeptics out there who believe I am offering conclusions based on narrow personal experience but I am willing to bet the barn there are millions out there who will testify that I am not alone in my assessment.
I am as active in my career as ever. My daily writing habits have not changed. I continue to write my novels, plays, poems and essays and do what writers do which is to conjure ideas, fashion them into stories and generally communicate the results to potential readers.
I do confess that I am not as agile or as flexible as when I was a 23 year-old soldier in the Korean War or as formidable as I used to be in other areas requiring more extreme physicality but I have not yet reduced my twice a week pilates exercises and can still claim a robust level in my fantasy life.
Nevertheless when I do honestly reveal my “number” to an inquisitive stranger, especially those of a younger demographic, I note an instant revision of their attitude and I am instantly reminded about every cliché about ageism that afflicts the culture from Charles Dickens’ “aged P” character in Great Expectations to the real life possibility of bureaucrats deciding end of life options.
Aged P, for those who don’t recall this wonderful masterpiece by Dickens, was the father of John Wemmick who instructs Pip how to socialize with his aged father “Nod away at him Mr. Pip, nod away at him if you please. That’s what he likes, like winking.”
Consider what can be learned from someone who has lived through the better part of the twentieth-century and on into the twenty-first, a witness to events that would seem to a millennial as beyond imagining. Indeed everything that has occurred in the long lifetime my number implies and having seen with my own eyes the ups and downs of the past offers lessons too invaluable to be dismissed on the basis of “tolerate but irrelevant.”
To throw that demographic of which I am a proud and lucky member on the rubbish heap of irrelevance is a critical mistake. Technology may radically change many things but personally witnessed and lived through experience tells us that human nature, however we manipulate and extend life, however we attempt to change the rules of human engagement, however much we destroy and, hopefully rejuvenate our environment, however long our planet can remain populated by the human animal, our basic nature with all its contradictions and propensity for good or evil will remain the same imperfect specimen.
I can hope only that this message resonates beyond the periphery of the words in this issue. Instead of “tolerate but irrelevant” perhaps those who bear my number and beyond should be regarded with the frame of “listen, consider, and learn.”
Oh yes, my category. I was born seven months after “Lucky Lindy” made his solo flight over the Atlantic to Paris. It was a helluva year. You do the math.