ROBERT J. LEWIS
people do not have a problem with being old.
They have a problem with looking old.
on their park bench
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the 'round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends.
we can be honest with ourselves, it’s not that we don’t
like old people, or that old people aren’t likeable; it’s
that we don’t like to be with them – because they
are ugly. I’ll say it again. Most old people – octogenarians,
nonagenarians -- are ugly. Claude Levi-Strauss, in Tristes
Tropiques, reports that the Brazilian Nambikwara tribe
use the same word for 'old' and 'ugly.'
isn’t turned off, even repulsed by hollowed-out fleshless
cheek on the bone, eyes and lips lost in the warp and woof of
1001 wrinkles, a face smothered in dark spots, white spots and
moles, blood-shot features glaring out of a skull draped in
a thin membrane of skin hanging onto the jaw for dear life?
Never mind that old people walk slow, talk slow. We don’t
want to be with them because they speak a truth that we don’t
want to hear: that death is but a whisper away, a whisper that
speaks loud and clear and shakes us to the core of our being.
In them our future is writ, and we look the other way.
course we make exceptions for old people who once looked after
us, loved and still love us: grandparents, parents, maybe a
close friend of a parent. Then there are those exceptional old
people who open up realms that privilege all those who are inside
them. To them we are exceptionally attracted – to the
wisdom and worldliness they radiate such that we imagine ourselves
being just like them when our time comes.
who has witnessed someone die from a wasting disease (cancer,
Parkinson’s) knows that death is ugly; old people are
a stark reminder of that eventuality. We, who in our youth flitted
from one hope to another like bees from flower to flower, don’t
want to be with people who have lost all hope, for whom the
future has shrunk to a handful of small pleasures and expectations:
the next meal, a card game, an old song, a visit from a family
member or old friend, waking up in the morning -- and for some
not waking up.
people, who were once young, know that they are ugly, that younger
people don’t want to be with them on that account. Low
shame and embarrassment indices and personal finances permitting,
some of them opt for botox or collagen injections, or cosmetic
surgery. They’re not trying to cheat death, or pretend
to be what they are not: they simply (unapologetically) don’t
want to be rejected because they are ugly.
we speak of the ugliness synonymous with the old, we infer a
scale of beauty whose intervals are visual indicators of one’s
proximity to death. Old people are ugly because they are closer
to death than young people. They are shrunk and bent, and show
more skeleton than flesh. We duly note with an asterisk that
the inspirited skeleton has always served as the favourite prop
and life-line of the horror genre.
old people, consciously or otherwise, remain or become fat because
the adipose fills in the wrinkles and furrows, puts flesh on
the rickety bones. But there's a ‘heavy ‘price to
pay: of the few who make it to old age, most don't stay around
very long to enjoy their blushing look and younger company.
reluctant as are the young to be face to face with the death
masks all old people wear that only death can vanquish, they
are just as eager to attach themselves to what is eternal in
only art survives the rise and fall of empires and man’s
folly, the young look to the arts to assuage their fears of
mortality, be it through the purchase of a timeless work of
art, or the financing and construction of a monument, museum,
or shrine to which they lend their name, convincing themselves
that, by association, what is eternal in the work will confer
the same to them. And of course there isn’t an artist
who doesn’t secretly hope that his book, painting, or
song won’t survive him.
invest their time and energy and exceptional empathy in characters
that are immortal: a Hamlet, a Willy Loman. And while the actor
playing Hamlet will suffer the indignation of having his pretend
life lived out in a mere two or three hours on stage, he knows
that all his characters will be reborn every time the curtain
is lifted, a compensation that accounts for his hard-earned
poise and self-esteem. That we regard it as normal for a stage
character to be resurrected time and again should give us pause
when we criticize, mock or reject religions founded on the notion
of rebirth, of someone coming back from the dead.
that film is in the permanent preserve of both celluloid and
digital, the actor not only dreams of great fame and fortune,
but to be central to a film from which audiences will never
tire, and through which he will live on, at his current age,
long after he has given up the ghost.
the sciences and medicine, our inventors and discoverers will
rest in peace knowing that their inventions and vaccines will
survive the worst of war and plague.
rejection and enfeeblement, old age is not without its consolations.
In an age where we are being constantly bombarded with information
and choices, being in the present is becoming more and more
problematic. Yoga classes, Hindu/Zen ashrams and meditation
courses are proliferating, with the aim of training the chronically
distracted mind to be in the present, in the fugitive now, where
most old people naturally dwell like the children they once
were a long long time ago.
out from any future, most suffering from memory issues, the
old don’t require instruction on how to be wholly in the
present. Most of them are already there, making do with what
is there before them: a favourite music, a turn on the balcony
towards a kiss from the sun. Observing them in their final home,
of the undivided attention they confer to the things and situations
that engage them in the full flush of the present that speaks
the language of the eternal, I’m not sure if in their
varying degrees of confusion and forgetfulness they have been
saddled with the ultimate indignity or touched by the hand of
a merciful God.
as there is always a wave to replace the one that has just crashed,
there will always be old people. If we’re lucky enough,
we’ll one day be counted among them. How will we react
to the younger generations that don't want to know about us?
What can we do to help make the fear and trembling and sickness
unto death we arouse a part of their vital concerns? How can
we convince them that the meaning of their lives will be enhanced
in direct proportion to the time they spend with us, that the
message of death the old carry tolls for them, and what the
toll tells is what prepares a man to rise to the occasion of
humility before the ruddy colours of a sunset, to cherish the
changes from major to minor, and moves him to give thanks or
recite a prayer upon seeing an old friend.
every visit with my mother, now in an home, I become more and
more convinced that, taking liberties with T. S. Eliot, “old
people ought to be sailors.”
with an Angel