No, by “gero-funk,” I don’t mean I’m branching out into a new energetic genre.
What I mean is: I’m not in a very good mood today. I woke up with a head cold, and I’m feeling weepy and vulnerable. So that may explain why there’s a bit of a grumpy edge to what I’m about to lay on you. (And let me just say from the outset, what I’m taking on here is perhaps one of the trickiest things to think and write about as a gerontologist, even for a gero-punk-otologist. I’ve tried to take it on before, and I’ll probably be trying to work out my thinking about it until the day I go back to the stars, e.g. die.) (And let me say as well, and this is not to denigrate blog writing, but this isn’t a fully fleshed-out essay but a blog-prolegomenon. I’m trying to work some stuff out; in other words, I’m not offering a fully-formed perspective.)
So, I think it has to be about the avoidance of vulnerability. How else to explain how we can be so sensitive to and aware of certain kinds of difference (and the socially constructed inequality that connects to difference), but not to other kinds of difference(s). Such as the difference(s) that emerge as we travel through the life course.
Let me be more specific—How is it that an radical immigrant writer or a feminist sociologist or, for that matter, a critical gerontologist (yep, for real) can be so blind to the social construction of age/aging/later life, so avoidant of what seems to me to be the obvious fact that tangled up with racism, heterosexism, classism, sexism and…and…is ageism?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—aging and old age are everywhere, and nowhere. A brilliant 40-something author talks lucidly about the interconnections between sexism, racism, and capitalism, but then refers to himself as “old” because he recently had to have back surgery. What the hell does back surgery have to do with being “old”? And how do you look into the audience and say “You are all so young in Portland!” when sitting in the front row right in front of you is an obviously chronologically gifted woman (not to mention a couple of other silver-haired folk, not that silver hair is un-young)? What does the author gain by doing a performance of himself as “old,” as older than his audience? I’m not feeling judgmental, just terribly curious. This is all so fascinating to me, and I would have loved to ask the author about it, but in order to even approach the articulation of a lucid question I might have posed to him (and in front of the “young” audience) I’d have had to do at least 15 minutes of pre(r)ambling, which isn’t most folks’ cup of tea.
Ageism, internalized and externalized, it is running rampant. And it isn’t what you think it is, it isn’t just the bland version whereby all old people are seen as being the same in certain ways—sick, tired, conservative, sexless (or sexually depraved), demented. Yikes!
There are all kinds of perspectives on the origins of ageism, some of which I think have some validity, but at this time/place/space I’d assert that ageism is at its core a fear of accepting the deep reality of being a human creature. It emerges from a stubborn refusal to look closely at the human journey across the life course, it is a manifestation of our fantastic talent especially in the land of plenty to repress the fact that to be embodied consciousness over many decades is to be simultaneously incredibly fortunate (what a fantastic opportunity to get to explore what it means to be human over such a long time-frame) and incredibly vulnerable (we are soft and fleshy, our hearts are tender, our egos are tricksters, and resources run out.). (This may be debatable, but) We will never be a member of an ethnic or cultural group other than the one we are born into (no matter how fully we try to ingest and metabolize the philosophies and practices of other peoples), and we won’t change our sex/gender without a hell of a lot of intensive interventions, and we won’t alter our location in the layers of social stratification without a lot of gumption and luck, but we all have the potential, at least, to travel through the life course and become old humans. And being old is associated with being sick, tired, conservative, sexless (or sexually deprived), demented. Yikes! No wonder age/aging/later life lives in the shadows.
Some of us work with great diligence to develop compassion for the “others” amongst us, even work on behalf of anti-racism, sexism, heterosexism, classicism, etc. But what about anti-ageism, and not just the ageism that unfairly and unfavorably constructs the “other,” but the internalized ageism we all carry within our selves?
How is it that when imagining what it means, what it could mean to be human, we so often leave out the time-traveling aspect of being human, that we are all riding on the arrow of time, moving from the earth and back to the stars. Contemplating, accepting, and understanding this existential and experiential truth has the power to connect us human beings across any kind of difference that has, does, or will exist. We may look all sorts of ways, come from different places on the planet, hold to diverse stories about reality, but the one thing that we have in common, that unites us as human beings is that if we are fortunate to be safe and sound enough to do so we get to participate in the amazing unfolding over time of our own particular self-hood.