At California Polytechnic State University, students can take a class in the Psychology of Aging. Since I’m qualified if only by my increasing age to know something on the topic, I recently joined a set of older adults from Colorado affiliated with a nonprofit called Senior Planet, matched with a group of students in the class. We met online via Zoom, as so many activities are conducted now, and got to know one another over a series of three meetings, asking each other questions about lives, beliefs, and lessons we’ve learned.
My contact, Alexandra, a senior, is primarily interested in animal science, an area I know nothing about, with the exception of admiring researcher-writer-professor Temple Grandin. Her minor is psychology, which was my major in college. So we were thrown together and asked to determine what we could gain from one another. The details are probably less important than the overall findings although we discovered we have two things in common. We both are INTJ on the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, a psychological approach to categorizing human personalities. And we both periodically suffer from what we call “rocks in our heads,” or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which makes us extremely dizzy.
The other participants were as different as we two. So how do you measure if a life has been well-lived? As Einstein said, “Just because a thing can be counted doesn’t mean it should be counted.” You have to rely on personal opinions.
Interesting to me were the final reports. Nearly all of the older participants advised that success in life does not lie in status, money, titles, or material possessions, but in self-satisfaction, being with loved ones, and feeling a passion about something, whether that’s a cause, a hobby, an activity. Remaining curious was mentioned frequently as a good quality.
As for the students, most surprising were their previous attitudes toward older adults. I think we were running into many stereotypes and ageism: older people are boring and bored, older people are ”fragile,” a term I particularly despise, both physically and mentally; older adults have nothing to share with students. But by the end, and due to the continuing interactions, the students had reversed their opinions. Both younger and older groups felt the project had personally benefitted them.
The basis for the project was Lives Well Lived, a feature documentary film by Sky Bergman, that celebrates the incredible wit and wisdom of adults 75 to 100 years old who are living their lives to the fullest. Encompassing over 3000 years of experience, forty people shared their secrets and insights to living a meaningful life. I found the subjects of the film to be inspiring myself. During these times of mass quarantines, I’ll take as many positive outlets as I can get.
As we live through our present, whenever that is, we tend to forget what’s gone before. Good, bad, and neutral, our pasts influence our present. Some of our changes are bad, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the major impact it’s had on our lives, our economy, and our very lifestyles. But it didn’t appear out of nowhere, nor is it the first pandemic ever to hit humanity. The plague, various versions of the flu including the 1918 Spanish variety, typhoid fever, cholera, and others were happenings we had to live through and learn from.
So, too, with social change. The recent incidents that led to Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and other movements did not occur instantaneously, like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. There always have been precursors leading to the development of change. We may not know of these, but they exist nonetheless.
That’s a major reason why I value fiction. It ushers us to the emotional tangle served up with mere facts. We could read treatise after book after study concerning the Vietnam war, and those numbers wouldn’t carry one-tenth of the impact of The Things They Carried. A volume on the causes and potential cures for COVID wouldn’t ring our chimes like A Year of Wonders, set in 17th century England during a plague.
So when I picked up Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, I knew I’d get a story about the African-American experience, but the actual narrative was much more than a mere tale. Dana, the 20th century protagonist, is thrown back in time to the antebellum South where her white ancestor Rufus is drowning. She saves him but then only returns home when her own life is threatened. So the pattern is set, back and forth more than a century, as Dana learns Rufus is becoming more twisted and damaged by the economic and social system of slavery than Blacks.
Butler’s genius (and she was the first science fiction author to be awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant) was to imbue her characters with true humanity. They jump off the pages and create resonations in the reader’s mind and emotions that remain far after the last page in the book is closed.
It’s strange to me to think Butler passed away years ago, way too early in her career, and now people forget or overlook the strides people like her and other advocates for social justice made. We can’t live in any time other than our own, except through our imaginations. Butler was and remains a guide for our own confused, infuriating, and at times malevolent situations. Through her writerly gifts, we can extract not only a ripping good story but also the awareness and solace of human emotions. If you haven’t sampled Butler, now might be a good time to do so.
“I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.” Oliver Goldsmith
This frequently is my emotional reaction to politicians, politics, and elections. Yet can we sit idly by and not make our opinions known when we fail to vote? I know the ballots are long, the claims contradictory, and the issues confusing. But a number of resources help us to make sense of them.
One of the best known is the League of Women Voters’ bi-partisan, well-reasoned, even-handed approach. Visit https://www.vote411.org/personalized-voting-info, and you access Colorado and Denver info.
In his wisdom, Oliver Goldsmith also waxed eloquent on laws in general:
“The laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law.”
Don’t get too depressed. From local news source the Denverite, another look at the Denver ballot issues, no candidates:
On the other hand, you may want some guidance about the people actually running. Here’s the Denver Post’s suggestions: https://www.denverpost.com/opinion/endorsements/
Finally, a positive note about humanity and the election process: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde
Colorado Public Radio has a handy guide to nearly everything, candidates, issues, amendments. It also includes the “Blue Book” from the State Legislative Council, that attempts to evaluate the fiscal impact of measures. https://www.cpr.org/2020/10/12/vg-2020-colorado-voter-guide-november-election/
Always wear a helmet!
I’ve always wondered how people know they’re old. Most of my friends continue to deny the state and despise the terms “older adult,” “senior,” “fragile-frail,” “aging.” People who have time and interest to study such things decided “old” seems to be further off the older you get. When interviewed, of those in the 75+ category, only 35% say they “feel old.”
I fell into that category until recently, when I attempted a ten-mile bike ride from Frisco to Breckenridge in Colorado. We’d visited the popular destinations frequently, although the last time was three or four years ago. Each time we’d bike to at least one distant destination. Frisco’s altitude is just over 9000 feet, with Breckenridge about 500 feet higher; and since we life in Denver (the Mile High City), I thought I was set to go.
Although I achieved my goal, I took twice the amount of time and my heart was pounding much of the trip, something that never had occurred before. In fact, my respiration rate bordered on breathless. I wound up hopping on the free bus shuttle for the return trip, with the help of the nice driver who boosted my bike into the carrier (I’m too short to do this).
Do I blame the covid lockdown? No, for I’ve actually increased my aerobic exercising over the months. Could the cause be my mysterious autoimmune disease? Maybe, although I don’t get breathless at any other time. Should I, horrors!, admit age is creeping up on me, altitude affects me more, and I’m not as chipper. . .or young. . .as I used to be? This seems the most likely, despite my emotional recoil at the thought.
My reaction to disturbing ideas, honed over the years, is to attempt to correct my weakness, physical or otherwise. So I’ve pulled out a small tablet, tied on a pen, and resolved to go up and down my one flight of stairs an ever-increasing number of times daily. Right now, I’m at twice, but I only started today.
My journals, notes, and notebooks are crammed full of good resolutions and to-do lists to achieve goals. I remember even in high school I’d promise faithfully each summer to study my French regularly for half-an-hour daily. In college, the registers more frequently were lists of clothes to wear and buy. Young adulthood, the records tended toward money as I saved for a European stay, then to buy needed supplies for babies. Back in the job market, the registers included positions for which I was qualified and where I’d submitted applications.
I’ll see what shakes out. On the positive side, my years have taught me not to demand perfection because I’ll always be disappointed. I’m not terribly optimistic I’ll return to the respiration level of a forty-year-old. As my physical therapist tells me, “You’re hoping to stay stable or improve a bit, not set records.” I be satisfied to aim for a yeoman’s effort, whatever that is. (I found out! Click on link for info.) And I suppose I’ll be forced to admit I’m getting old.
Compare contemporary times to the French Revolution. No similarities? Think again. Mob rule held sway. It’s been estimated that over 40,000 aristos were murdered in the name of justice. We shake our heads in wonder that people were so susceptible to a reign of terror. But are we really so different in this time of pandemic?
Nowadays the gauntlet initially is thrown down by calling someone racist or accusing them of violating pandemic orders or hinting at misconduct. The mob attacks online, cheered on by the media which spreads rumors, creates straw polls to encourage people to vote on misleading, even malevolent suggestions. How many viewers are in favor of this-or-that? Who thinks such-and-such is wrong? This is known as “mob mentality.”
Consequences are mind-boggling. People have lost jobs, felt they had to resign, been driven to drop off social media, even commit suicide when they’ve done nothing wrong. Men have been dogged with sexual misconduct accusations. People get labeled “racist” when all they’ve done is make a statement or ask a question. Dueling rallies clash—pro police, anti police, whatever.
If you’re like me, you pride yourself on being an individual. You may not want to admit the influence of mass culture on you, but individualistic people are just as susceptible to mob rule as different personalities. Also strangely enough, what people claim they value or believe may be completely opposite from how they act.
We assert nowadays that everyone’s opinion is valued. In truth, we can state almost any opinion, but to gain visibility or support, we have to agree with the pronouncement of the primary advocate. Otherwise you’re threatened with exclusion or even violence. Look at the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The “pro” people pulled in lots of advocates. Then the “anti” folks stormed in on the opposite side, leading to lots of angry demonstrators, exciting visuals with battling crowds, fires, shouts and screams; along with hour after hour of newscasters just as hysterical as they shrieked blow-by-blow accounts. And, unfortunately, deaths.
Long ago, anthropologist Gustave le Bon said a crowd of demonstrators was greater than the sum of the individuals in it. It seems to have an existence, a group “consciousness.” He believed that the individuals become submerged in the crowd and lose their sense of individual responsibility under cover of the anonymity.
I find myself in the strange position of opposing these frantic, frenetic furies despite my passionate defense of individualism. They seem not infrequently to tip from mere expression to belligerent demands and attempts to control everyone else’s beliefs and behavior. I wonder if we get a secondhand high from the roiling emotions and expressions that make our blood boil and put our brain on alert. But I wish we’d give it up. Let’s step back and demonstrate our true commitment to differing opinions by welcoming everyone’s without an instant rush to judgment.