I’ve lost faith in the saying, “You’re only as old as you think you are,” ever since I got old.
It is a saying with a fine heritage. It goes right back to the idea of the Power of Positive Thinking that is so strong in America because it fits in so well with the Power of Commercial Advertising and with the Power of Wishful Thinking aka The American Dream. It is the bright side of Puritanism: What you deserve is what you get. (Never mind just now about the dark side.) Good things come to good people and youth will last forever for the young in heart.
There is a whole lot of power in positive thinking. It is the great placebo effect. In many cases, even dire cases, it works. I think most old people know that, and many of us try to keep our thinking on the positive side as a matter of self-preservation, as well as dignity, the wish not to end with a prolonged whimper. It can be very hard to believe that one is actually eighty years old, but, as they say, you’d better believe it. I’ve known clear-headed, clear-hearted people in their nineties. They didn’t think they were young. They knew, with a patient, canny clarity, how old they were. If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub. Even if I’m seventy and think I’m forty, I’m fooling myself to the extent of almost certainly acting like an awful fool.
Actually, I’ve never heard anybody over seventy say that you’re only as old as you think you are. Younger people say it to themselves or each other as an encouragement. When they say it to somebody who actually is old they don’t realise how stupid it is, and how cruel it may be. At least there isn’t a poster of it.
But there is a poster of “Old age is not for sissies” — maybe it’s where the saying came from. A man and a woman in their seventies. As I remember it, they both have what the Air Force used to call The Look of Eagles, and are wearing very tight-fitting minimal clothing, and are altogether very fit. Their pose suggests that they’ve just run a marathon and aren’t breathing hard while they relax by lifting 16-pound barbells. Look at us, they say. Old age is not for sissies.
Look at me, I snarl at them. I can’t run, I can’t lift barbells, and the thought of me in tight-fitting minimal clothing is appalling in all ways. I am a sissy. I always was. Who are you to say old age isn’t for me?
Old age is for anybody who gets there. Warriors get old; sissies get old. In fact it’s likely that more sissies than warriors get old. Old age is for the healthy, the strong, the tough, the intrepid, the sick, the weak, the cowardly, the incompetent. People who run ten miles every morning before breakfast and people who live in a wheelchair. People who work the London Times crossword in ink in ten minutes and people who can’t quite remember who the President is just now. Old age is less a matter of fitness or courage than of luck equals longevity.
If you eat your sardines and leafy greens and wear SPF 150 and develop your abs and blabs and slabs or whatever they are in order to live a long life, that’s good, and maybe it will work. But the longer a life is, the more of it will be old age.
The leafy greens and the workouts may well help that old age to be healthy, but unfair as it may be, nothing guarantees health to the old. Bodies wear out after a certain amount of mileage despite the most careful maintenance. No matter what you eat and how grand your abs and blabs are, still your bones can let you down, your heart can get tired of its incredible nonstop lifelong athletic performance, and there’s all that wiring and stuff inside that can begin to short-circuit. If you did hard physical labor all your life and didn’t really have the chance to spend a lot of time in gyms, if you ate mostly junk food because it’s all you knew about and all you could afford in time and money, if you haven’t got a doctor because you can’t buy the insurance that stands between you and the doctors and the medicines you need, you may arrive at old age in rather bad shape. Or if you just run into some bad luck along the way, accidents, illnesses, it’s the same. You won’t be running marathons and lifting weights. You may have trouble getting up the stairs. You may have trouble just getting out of bed. You may have trouble getting used to hurting all the time. And it isn’t likely to get better as the years go on.
The compensations of getting old, such as they are, aren’t in the field of athletic prowess. I think that’s why the saying and the poster annoy me so much. They’re not only insulting to sissies, they’re beside the point.
I’d like a poster showing two old people with stooped backs and arthritic hands and time-worn faces sitting talking, deep, deep in conversation. And the slogan would be: Old Age is not for the Young.
P.S. (9 December 2010, 3:30 p.m. PST) Only after I wrote this did it occur to me to Google “Old age is not for sissies” to see if there was a provenance other than the poster (which is available from Northern Sun, if you want it.) The quote is ascribed to Bette Davis, with the usual lack of specific location or context. My First Reader looked up a variation on it, which brings us H.L.Mencken (no location, no context) cited as saying “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” A reasonable guess is that Davis had read Mencken, as everybody did, remembered the line, and said it her way. In any case, neither Davis nor Mencken were exactly athletic, bodybuilder types, so it has quite a different ring coming from them.
P.P.S. (1 January 2011) Susan Jacoby’s article on pretty much the same subject, handling it seriously and very well, “Real Life Among the Old Old,” just came out as a NY Times op-ed piece. I recommend it.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.