Morris: On Becoming Elderly — Suddenly
by Leo Morris
We live inside a buffered area – sort of a sociological DMZ – where the way others see us and the way we see ourselves collide and mutate into a whirling kaleidoscope of perception.
Sometimes we fret about one or the other.
What a gift, the poet Robert Burns said, it would be to see ourselves as others see us. As long as we live out here in the world rather than on a desert island, only by being mindful of the impressions we make can we strive to be better friends and neighbors. Those who proclaim they don’t care what anyone thinks about them are lying to themselves.
But we can care much too much about what others see in us. Scores of psychological treatises have been created to support the notion that our self-image is but a portrait cobbled together from bits and pieces of how we think the world sees us. In this tortured landscape dwell both the conscientious conformist and the purposeful nonconformist, each in their own way devoting their lives to the whims and tastes of others.
I think that most of us, most of the time, are comfortable negotiating this zone. We’re aware of what others think – that’s why mostly we dress the way others around us are dressed. But we also know our core beliefs and values and allow them to guide us through the expectations and judgments of those around us.
Most of us, most of the time.
That complacency can be disrupted, forcing us to re-examine the pictures we have so carefully painted.
Our self-image is likely to be called into question at a pivotal moment when the stakes get raised. At least once in every life, a friend and fellow writer once said to me, there will come a call to step up. It might come when you’re 17 or when you’re 90, but the call will come. And whether you step up or not will define you.
I think we’d been talking about the military — specifically those who never served and now feel defensive about it. But much smaller turning points than that are just as important. When a friend is suffering emotional anguish, for example, and being a real jerk about it, and it would require some sacrifice to be supportive yet one more time. Based on that choice, I have stepped up, and
I have not stepped up. My self-image is still a work in progress.
The abrupt realization that we need to dwell on how others see us can be triggered by the most casual of careless remarks, one of which I have just suffered through.
My ancient house (built in 1920) had been having an electrical issue causing the circuit breakers to periodically trip and plunge half the rooms into darkness. After troubleshooting the problem, Chris the electrician determined that one of two lines coming into the house was dead, which would require someone from American Electric Power to come out and check the connection.
He was standing not 15 feet from me while he talked on the phone with AEP. After describing the problem and requesting a work order “for one of my customers,” he said:
“And you need to get out here today. My customer is elderly, and I don’t want him to be stuck here without power.”
Hearing that one word, I suddenly felt – what? Offended? Violated? Diminished? All of that.
A moment before, I had just been just a homeowner named Leo talking to an electrician named Chris about a problem to be solved. And then, just like that, I was no longer that normal person, but a member of what these days is called a “protected group,” that is, one of the ones who can no longer be trusted to negotiate life’s path without an enlightened escort.
Elderly. Feeble. Weighed down by the years. Dependent on the kindness of strangers.
And while our self-image might always be a work in progress, our projected image tends to be fixed in place once we are assigned our group membership. We lose our individuality and become merely a demographic cipher, an interchangeable piece of an undifferentiated mass. One of them. Those people.
Look, I know all the New Age philosophy and its feel-good jargon. “Elderly” is a moving target, and we all consider that category to start no less than 10 years older than our current age. 70 is the new 50. Age is a state of mind, and you are old only if you feel old.
But the fact is that there is a demarcation line, and it coincides with retirement and government benefits and society’s collective decision that you have entered the final phase. That line is age 65. On one side of it, you are still an individual, and on the other, you are a senior citizen – elderly – and that’s just the way it is.
And the truth is, self-image is not a good fallback position, because sometimes I do feel old. A little creaky in the execution. A little slower on the recovery time. A little hesitant on abandoning my comfort zone.
Usually, it’s a gradual, creeping feeling, mind you. It might shock the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, but old people did not spring full-blown into this world. Today, we feel exactly one day older than we did yesterday just as we have felt every single day of our lives.
But occasionally, we take a good look at that face staring back from the mirror and think, “How in the hell did that happen?” And it is a shock. A shock we are forced to contemplate when a careless remark like Chris’s reminds us that the world also sees that face.
When image fails us altogether, we have no choice but to examine the substance of our lives. I am comforted by the words of a few thoughtful people.
Texas songwriter Julie Gold once said that, on the one hand, it took her about two hours to write the wonderful “From A Distance,” but, on the other hand, it took her 30 years – her age at the time. Everything we do is the product of all we have been up to that point. And there are things we have yet to do that we won’t do until it is time – whether we are 17 or 90.
And Mortimer Adler, who tirelessly worked on spreading the virtues of the Western canon until his death at 95, believed that no person can be truly educated until the age of 50 or 60 and said once in an interview that “as the body weakens in any or all of its corporeal organs, the intellect grows stronger. We can think better, more clearly, more soundly.” I look forward to being a genius any day now.
Finally, there is the greatest philosopher of them all, Popeye the Sailor Man, who proudly declared, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.”
Always a work in progress.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.