Friday, March 07, 2008

The Ways of the World

We are born into a world in which everyone is our peer, or older. Imperceptibly we are subject to the rising tide of time. Minutes become hours become days become months become years. More and more people are younger than us, but we seldom notice, because our peer group remains vast. But as the tide rises higher the more perceptive among us slowly become aware that entire generations of people older than we are no longer there. Our awareness of mortality is only peripheral at first…a family acquaintance, an older distant relative, perhaps a grandparent. Inexorably, mortality comes closer. Still we largely ignore it.

If we stop to think of it—which most of us seldom do—we will notice that our peer group is beginning, again imperceptibly, to thin out. The first deaths of those close to us create gaping holes in our soul, which, if it could be compared to a block of cheese, with subsequent losses more closely resembles Swiss than cheddar.

But the purpose of this entry is not to cast a pall of "Geez, I'm gonna die", but to point out something very few of us ever think of.

Human beings are a gregarious species, and not meant to be alone. As we age, we move—either by choice or from being subtly forced—out of the mainstream. From the time of puberty, sex plays an important role in our lives. It's rather like a fun club to which everyone belongs. But as we age and become physically less attractive in a society which is pathologically devoted to youth and beauty, unless we are lucky enough to have a life partner, we are no longer welcome in the club. The desire, the longing, may still be there, but the practical possibility of exercising those longings and desires all but vanishes as we, ourselves, become increasingly invisible to those around us.

This isolation is not limited to sex. Many other basic human needs—for friendship, affection, and love, remain as strong as ever as their realization becomes more remote. Yet if we are aware at all of the elderly other than those within our immediate families, our response to them tends, even among the well-meaning, to be condescension: and there is nothing more degrading and insulting than condescension.

Granted, many old people seem to revert to a form of childhood, to be confused by things which have not always been a part of their lives, to be hesitant to make their own decisions, or to need help with things they, as young adults, could have done without a moment's thought. But I suspect a large part of it has to do with the fact that these problems result from the sense that they are no longer considered to be viable, worthy, capable people. They retreat within themselves because it is made far too clear to them that they are not wanted or needed by the rest of the world.

Kindness and courtesy cost nothing. We all know how much it means to be given a smile when it is really needed. But the older we get, the fewer people there are able…or, let's face it, willing…to take the time or effort to do so. Have you any idea how much a casual touch on the arm or a hug can mean to someone who has almost forgotten what physical contact with another human is like?

"For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee. ..." John Donne

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