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Vol. 15, No. 5, 2016
 
     
 
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OLD PEOPLE

by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

___________________________________

Most people do not have a problem with being old.
They have a problem with looking old.
Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Sat on their park bench
Like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the 'round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends.
Paul Simon

If 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.'

Who 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.

Of 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.

Anyone 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.

Old 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.

When 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.

Some 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.

As 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 life.

Since 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.

Thespians 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.

Now 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.

In 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.

Despite 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.

Shut 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.

Just 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.

After 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.”

_________________________________________________________

Interview with an Angel of Mercy.

 

 

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COMMENTS

neila mezynski
Thank you . . . a truly inspired piece.

user-submission@feedback.com 
People fall out of love with the most beautiful people because once you spend a certain amount of time with that beautiful person it's the personality that you see and react with and not their physical appearance. It's the same with your old and ugly people, who after you spend time with them and get to know them they aren't ugly or whatever but simply who they are. So my suggestion is that you spend more time with them so you will be able to see what is really there.

user-submission@feedback.com 
I quite like the article, mostly because of the excellent prose and the last two paragraphs which prove it.

user-submission@feedback.com 
Yes. Ugly and often disgusting as well, as their rotting dissolving interiors ooze out of every available orifice, or swell the feeble transparency of skin which envelops them.
No one in his right mind would wish himself there, and yet the war on natural death is ever gaining ground. Pharmaceutical companies spend more monies on the ‘forced’ preservation of life than anything else (perhaps even abortion!) Let’s face it. Were it not for advanced medicine most old folks homes would today be sepulchres, as they perhaps ought to be.
The old weren't as ugly in the past as they are today because they didn't get a chance to be. Nature would not allow it.
It isn't the old who are ugly but the newly created ZOMBIES which modern science has forcibly and arrogantly created.
I enjoyed the article, especially the notion of "presence" -- a good twist and provocative ending.

user-submission@feedback.com 
Dear Robert Lewis: Have you ever heard of inner beauty?  There wasn't a single reference to it in the bleak picture you painted.  It is very sad that you were not able to mine the riches just below the surface of skin you describe in so very great detail.

user-submission@feedback.com
Your article showed a lot of  thought and your insightfulness.  My Mom, who turns 93 next month has dementia and Alzheimer's.

also by Robert J. Lewis:
Beware the Cherry-Picker
Once Were Animal
Islam is Smarter Than the West
Islam Divided by Two
Pedophiling Innocence
Grappling with Revenge
Hit Me With That Music
The Sinking of the Friendship
Om: The Great Escape
Actor on a Hot Tin Roof
Being & Self-Consciousness
Giacometti: A Line in the Wilderness
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
1-800-Philosophy
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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