The Diminished Thing

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischThe Diminished Thing

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Not wanting to know much about getting old (I don’t mean older, I mean old: late seventies, eighties, beyond) is probably a human survival characteristic. What’s the use of knowing anything about it ahead of time? You’ll find out enough when you get there.

One of the things people often find when they get there is that younger people don’t want to hear about it. So honest conversation concerning geezerhood takes place mostly among geezers.

And when younger people tell old people what old age is, the geezers may not agree, but seldom argue.

I want to argue, just a little.

Robert Frost’s ovenbird asked the operative question: “What to make of a diminished thing?”

Americans believe strongly in positive thinking. Positive thinking is great. It works best when based on a realistic assessment and acceptance of the actual situation. Positive thinking founded on denial may not be so great. (Like, look at Lance Armstrong.)

Everybody who gets old has to assess their ever-changing but seldom improving situation and make of it what they can. I think most old people accept the fact that they’re old — I’ve never heard anybody over eighty say “I’m not old.” And they make the best of it. As the saying goes: Consider the alternative!

A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality.

With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

And the Pope isn’t Catholic.

“You’re only as old as you think you are!”

Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion.

“My uncle’s 90 and he walks eight miles a day.”

Lucky Unk, I hope he never meets that old bully Arthur Ritis or his mean wife Sciatica.

“My grandmother lives all by herself and she’s still driving her car at 99!”

Well, hey for Granny, she’s got good genes. She’s a great example — but not one most people are able to imitate.

Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation.

Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!”


Encouragement by denial, however wellmeaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer?

To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life — me.

Of course that’s what a lot of really young people inevitably do. Kids who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are. So it is that old men come to learn the invisibility women learned twenty or thirty years earlier. The kids on the street don’t see you. If they have to see you, it’s often with the indifference, distrust, or animosity animals feel for animals of a different species.

Animals have instinctive codes of etiquette for avoiding or defusing this mindless fear and hostility. Dogs ceremonially smell each others’ anuses, cats ceremonially yowl on the territorial borderline. Human societies provide us with various more elaborate devices. One of the most effective is respect. You don’t like the stranger, but your carefully respectful behavior to him elicits the same from him, thus avoiding the sterile expense of time and blood on aggression and defense.

In less change-oriented societies than ours, a great part of the culture’s useful information, including the rules of behavior, is taught by the elders to the young. One of those rules is, unsurprisingly, a tradition of respect for age.

In our increasingly unstable, future-oriented, technology-driven society, the young are often the ones who show the way, who teach their elders what to do. So who respects whom for what? The geezers are damned if they’re going to kowtow to the twerps — and vice versa.

When there’s no social pressure behind it, respectful behavior becomes a decision, an individual choice. Americans, even when they pay pious lipservice to Judaeo-Christian rules of moral behavior, tend to regard moral behavior as a personal decision, above rules, and often above laws.

This is morally problematic when personal decision is confused with personal opinion. A decision worthy the name is based on observation, factual information, intellectual and ethical judgment. Opinion — that darling of the press, the politician, and the poll — may be based on no information at all. At worst, unchecked by either judgment or moral tradition, personal opinion may reflect nothing but ignorance, jealousy, and fear. (Like, look at Phyllis Schlafly.)

So, if “I decide” — if my opinion is — that living a long time just means getting ugly, weak, useless, and in the way, I waste no respect on old people, just as if my opinon is that all young people are scary, insolent, unreliable, and unteachable, I waste no respect on them.

Respect has often been over-enforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding. It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification. Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all. Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death. The acceptance of that takes courage. Courage deserves respect.


So much for respect. Back to the diminished thing.

Childhood is when you keep gaining, old age is when you keep losing. The Golden Years the PR people keep gloating at us about are golden because that’s the color of the light at sunset.

Of course diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it. Life out of the rat race, but still in the comfort zone, can give the chance to be in the moment, and bring real peace of mind.

If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a beansprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.

Same goes for old people who keep their skill at any craft or art they’ve worked at for all those years. Practice does make perfect. They know how, they know it all, and beauty flows effortlessly from what they do.

But all such existential enlargements brought by living long are under threat from the lessening of strength and stamina. However well compensated for by intelligent coping mechanisms, small or large breakdowns in one bit of the body or another begin to restrict activity, while the memory is dealing with overload and slippage. Existence in old age is progressively diminished by each of these losses and restrictions. It’s no use saying it isn’t so, because it is so.

It’s no use making a fuss about it, or being afraid of it, either, because nobody can change it.

Yes, I know, we are, at the moment, in America, living longer. Ninety is the new seventy, etc. That’s generally taken to be a good thing.

How good? In what respects?

I recommend studying the ovenbird’s question long and seriously.

There are many answers to it. A lot can be made of a diminished thing, if you work at it. A lot of people (young and old) are working at it.

All I’m asking people who aren’t yet really old is to think about the ovenbird’s question too — and try not to diminish old age itself. Let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.


Please understand, I’m speaking for myself, for my own crabby old age. I may get told off for it by hordes of enraged octogenarians who like being told they’re “spry” and “feisty.” I don’t begrudge the fairy tale to those who want to believe it — and if I live longer than I think I want to, maybe I’ll even come to want to hear it: You’re not old! Nobody’s old. We’re all living happily ever after.


10 June 2013




The Diminished Thing — 26 Comments

  1. Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!”

    You’d think that people wouldn’t say that. But talk to disabled people. “Think positively and your disability will evaporate” is a conversation that–with variants–keeps occurring. Here’s a version that I recorded in 2010 after I’d gone to the hospital for a checkup.

    Here’s the scene.

    I’m sitting on a bench outside reading my book and waiting for Dial-A-Ride to show up. Well-Meaning Woman comes by.

    WMW: You look like you walk pretty well with that cane.

    Me (wondering why I’m being congratulated for being able to get around): Uh…thank you?

    WMW: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person as young as you with that kind of cane. (N.B. It’s an orthopedic cane. At the time, I was forty-eight, but looked younger.)

    Me: Oh, a lot of people use that kind of cane. My age or even younger.

    WMW: But I imagine you’ll be all better soon, right?

    Me: Huh?

    WMW: Well, if you’re walking with a cane…

    Me: I’m using a cane because this is one of my good days. A walker would be more comfortable and offer more support, but my walker broke this past winter and I haven’t been able to afford a new one yet. There are still some days when I use my wheelchair.

    WMW: You have a wheelchair?

    Me: Yes.

    WMW: Why?

    Me: Because sometimes the pain is so bad that it feels like I’m walking on knives. That makes walking difficult. But I still have to get around. (pointedly turning back to my book)

    WMW (tries to process this, then speaks in a perkily cheery tone): Well, I’m sure if you just have faith, whatever’s wrong with your legs will be healed in no time!

    Me (dryly): I doubt it.

    WMW (visibly shocked): What? Why?

    Me: Because faith isn’t going to have any impact on what’s wrong.

    WMW: You don’t know that!

    Me (speaking very slowly): I have a progressive genetic condition caused by a defect on Chromosome 5. That is why my lymphatic system did not develop properly, which is why my legs look twisted and swollen and which is why I have trouble walking. There is no retroactive fix for this. It is not going to go away.

    (I probably would have been somewhat less irked if she had not been standing right behind me when I discussed this matter with the receptionist about ten minutes earlier, who thought that a friend of hers might have lymphedema tarda. And Well-Meaning Woman told me then that what I was saying was “fascinating.” So I was not angry that WMW didn’t know the situation. I was angry that she was disregarding what she’d learned ten minutes before.)

    WMW (backing away): W-well, I’m sure that if you just have faith in the Lord, He’ll heal what’s wrong with you!

    Me (sighing, and meaning every word): Wouldn’t it have been simpler if He’d never cursed me with this condition in the first place?

    And that did it. She just scrambled away and fled without a backward glance.

    As I said, I do think that she meant well. I think that every person who tells me to trust in the Lord or think positively means means well. But damn it, I get tired of being told that if I just pray and/or think happy thoughts, the film of my life will run backwards and I’ll be a twenty-five-year-old in perfect health. I’d love it if that were the case…but things don’t work that way. In the first place, I never possessed what’s regarded as normal physical health. Since I was born with a defective chromosome, I can’t go back to having a healthy one or a fully developed lymphatic system. Second, if there is a God, I don’t think He’s a magician. You don’t just pray to Him and poof! All the bad stuff vanishes from your life. I seem to remember some saints suffering hideously, in fact. And third, it doesn’t really help me to pretend that this is going to go away. I have to deal with the reality as it is, not as I want it to be.

    I suppose people do this because it confirms their belief that they’re good people and that they’re actually helping the poor, the aged and disabled of the world. I think that it also reassures them that they, personally, will never be poor, old or disabled; after all, they know the secret. They don’t have to be poor or old or disabled if they don’t want to. All they have to do is think happy thoughts. I often want to ask them if this also means that they can fly off to Neverland. I know that they’re well-intentioned, but telling someone who is old that he or she isn’t old, or attempting to convince another person with a physical or psychological disability that “if you just pray/think positively/hear about someone else who overcame a similar problem, it will all go away”…well, it seems like the very opposite of helpful.

    All I’m asking people who aren’t yet really old is to think about the ovenbird’s question too — and try not to diminish old age itself. Let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.

    It doesn’t. People can’t deal with the problems caused by a reality if they can’t admit that the reality exists. It seems like that’s a common obstacle in today’s society. There appear to be many, many people who throw out reality–especially other people’s reality–in favor of opinions that are more pleasant and more satisfying.

    • Yes, the “happy thoughts magical thinking” is a kind of conceit that the terminally dense use as a talisman against misfortune.

      It is a derivation of the “blame the victim” mentality.

  2. I spent the last few years taking care of my father, who recently died of Alzheimer’s, so I have seen the worst of aging as up close and personal as it can get before it happens to you. Spending time with people whose minds are slipping away because of one kind of dementia or another will cure you of the belief that old age isn’t “real.”

    But I think I got my first glimpse into the realities of aging about 8 years earlier, before my father developed Alzheimer’s. He was in his mid-80s, in generally good health, but on his second set of replacement knees, meaning he moved slowly. I was walking with him in the commercial area of the River Walk in San Antonio, and people were bustling around us with no awareness of the fact that here was a man who needed a little extra space around him, a man who couldn’t afford to have anyone knock into him because he might not be able to regain his balance. That complete lack of awareness infuriated me. Why couldn’t people allow for his diminished capacity to walk?

    • This. People don’t see because they are just in such a big hurry and focused on themselves. But I did it too, before I started stepping out with my mother for the first time after her stroke. The bustle could cause her to fall and break a bone which would end her mobile life forever, and people were inconvenienced by it. I never noticed before either. Now I’m more aware. It infuriates me but I can’t lay blame on any one either. It’s the whole culture.

  3. Some years ago I moved in with my Mom, now in her mid 80s, after my father’s passing. They had moved into a retirement community by the Jersey shore, in better days. Since this is where her friends and life are, I thought moving in would be the better choice for Mom. I was approaching retirement age anyway.
    While one can argue the plus’ and minus’ of an age restricted community, there are things to learn here. Things happen as people get older. Some folks get sick; some are afflicted with dementia and some just grow older. Their world changes as vision and hearing weaken, and stamina reduces. Death is a frequent visitor. One of the behaviors I see here is ‘help when you can, but otherwise stay out of the way’ The people here want to face things on their own terms, if not necessarily on their own. The people of my parents age have lived through the great depression and the second world war in their youth. They know what’s coming their way.
    So I’m learning how to do little kindnesses and to try to do them in a humble manner. One day it’s gonna be my turn. How would I like others to do unto me?

    • I’ve been dealing with this too with an aging parent from that generation. I think it might be a generational thing in the US since my husband’s parents (from an entirely different culture) do not have the wish to feel self-sufficient. What I see is that everyone wants to feel valued and engaged in some way or another in life. In the US, particularly with that go-getting do-it-yourself WW2 generation, people equate value and engagement with self-sufficiency and so they want to be left to do things on their own as much as possible. Fine and well, but from the outside (and maybe this is the arrogance of youth and health) it seems it would all go a lot easier if we could accept and give help without any loss of value or respect.

      In my husband’s family, the elderly are less engaged with the daily management of their lives (housing, meals, bills, travel are all expected to be managed for them) and they keep up no appearances of self-sufficiency. Seems like Americans would find this arrangement oppressive, and in some cases they might be right. In the cases in my husband’s family, the elderly are accepted as dependent in some needs and then respected as household heads in others. They tell me this is a phase of life in which they are free to give advice, take honors and explore spiritual issues. Yes it works for them, and they are having an easier time of it than my own mother who doesn’t even want anyone to cook for her but can’t manage it herself, and so on. Still, I’ll not romanticize. If someone were to tell me I need to sit back and let others manage my life while I focus my mind on spiritual matters and the affairs of grandchildren- that I give up my own decision-making in exchange for the seat of honor at the supper table- I’d balk. The solution has to work for the family and the culture.

      But I do hope the generation of Americans taking care of parents in their 80s and 90s right now will not approach old-age with the same delusions of infinite self-sufficiency as their parents. My mother’s self-worth is tied up in her ability to drive and cook meals, and I see this with all her friends. It adds unnecessary stress for everyone.

  4. I’m still in the strange in-between ground in which young people (my students) think I’m old (ewww, grey hair!) and old people think I’m young (my mother and, amazingly, a few great aunts and uncles). I used to say that “old” is ten years older than however old my parents are, so “old” was a moving target. But lately, I have to accept that old is old–and that my beloved mother is old. But I think part of the problem is that our society has strangely cast-iron beliefs that any age inevitably means certain things: if you’re old, you’re a sweet doddering little thing–or a cranky bat (or coot (why those animals, do you suppose?)). According to our society’s rules about what old is supposed to be like, my mother doesn’t qualify: she’s whip fast intellectually, and physically energetic, not a sweet little grandma, she’s much too fierce for that, but cheerful and enthusiastic. So younger people pull out the platitudes about her not “being” old, because she doesn’t match the social expectations. But she is old. And that may diminish her physical capabilities some, and her memory a little, but she is in no other sense diminished by her age. The mind and soul inside her are anything but diminished: who she is as a person is powerfully enriched by her old age.

    I think of the hilarity caused by a video of The Fruitcake Lady (note that she has no name, no individuality, no identity beyond her ability to make fruitcakes and get annoyed with Jay Leno). In the video, young people ask her questions about sex and wild laughter ensues when she answers frankly and directly–because “little old ladies” (even of the cranky bat variety) aren’t supposed to know about sex: that’s for young people. What I wanted to say to all those amused arrogant little twerps was that that woman–whose name I had to look up, but I’m glad I did: Marie Rudisill–had more experience not only of sex but of anything they chose to consider about living life as a human being than the lot of them put together. It speaks to her good grace as an individual that she was so willing to be the source of such ignorant amusement, further testimony to the fact that she knew how to be a person of dignity in this world. Let the twerps howl with laughter: she knew who she was, and she knew what she knew.

    I’m similarly annoyed by a friend (well, sort of friend–incidentally also younger than I am) who sees old couples and says they’re “cute.” I’ve taken her to task for that, for the dismissive lack of respect evidenced in the word “cute” and she says I don’t understand how she means it. I tell her, in that case, she needs to find a word that conveys what she does mean because there is no sense of the word “cute” that is appropriate. It is beautiful, profoundly moving, to see a couple who have managed to live long lives together, carrying together years not only of love but of all the complicated layers of respect and forbearance required to live in partnership with someone else. Moving, yes, but it ain’t cute.

    But lately, I’ve also begun to wonder how many of those couples may be in new relationships. It dawned on me recently that just because we see two elderly people together in a couple does not mean they’ve been married all their lives. It could be a new romance, a second, third, seventh bond. Hell, they could just be dating. Or the secret to their longevity as a couple could simply be inertia. We don’t know. They’re individuals. Their lives are their own. We should make no assumptions just because we see white hair and wrinkles and a certain stiffness in the joints.

    I’m glad to be thinking about this. My father died of cancer at age 77–and believed he’d lived long enough. My mother struggles with the fact that people instantly treat her as less of a human (rather than more of one) when they find out her age. My eldest nephew was killed at age 34–and probably wouldn’t have lived to be an old man in any event, as a life-long diabetic who hadn’t taken good care of his body. I’m 56. I don’t know how long I’ve got; none of us do. I hope I get to experience real old age. I do not look forward to the ways in which aging hurts, physically and psychologically. But I do look forward to becoming more deeply, fully, profoundly the person I am, and I hope I have many more decades of living in which to do that. Aging is a complicated and difficult process, but it is a gift to work on doing it right. And yeah, dammit, it deserves respect.

  5. For a moment, if you don’t mind humouring me, I’d like you to imagine that you are sitting in a tree surveying the entrance to the Carnegie Free Library in the small Irish town of Malahide, in or about thirty years ago.

    You are watching an eight year old boy with dark hair walking up the steps on a glorious Summer day clutching his three green cardboard library tickets (one book per ticket). Inside, one the ground floor, dark, cool and quiet is the children’s section of the library (grown-ups upstairs).

    Dropping the annoying third person, this is where I would spend a couple of hours every Saturday or Sunday from the age of eight. I had a terrible habit of finding books that I’d like and getting them out of the library again and again. One of those books, with beautiful wood-cut drawings, was an edition of A Wizard of Earthsea. It is a book that I have always thought had something fundamental to say in connection with identity and the self but did so in terms that were so clear, it could be put in a young person’s section of the library, even though there was nothing child-like in the writing and nothing was sugar-coated.

    It accidentally contributed to another change in me at that time; it kick-started a life-time of reading, writing and reflecting that has never stopped. Without knowing it you have become one of a number of intellectual (or cultural) parents standing around me and helping me onto a path.

    That said, I didn’t perhaps believe you could affect me deeply any longer when I bought Lavinia, a few short years ago. I was confidently sure of that; but I was wrong. You taught me another lesson.

    This is a long way around to saying what you must know at this stage: that you do know how and practice does make perfect, in your case.

    I think you’re right; aging is a bit scary but do you mind if I make a very selfish request? Please pull your shoulders back, breathe in deeply and keep practicing.

    • I’m 44 and look like I’m in my 30’s so I have lots of experience of people saying things like, “Wow, you don’t look that old! You’re doing great!” I point out that looks can be deceiving, I have high blood pressure, and gout, conditions usually associated with people 10 to 20 years older than me. They usually don’t know how to respond to this but generally continue to assure me that I have achieved something exceptional by not appearing to be as old as I am. So even at my age I get constant reminders of our culture’s fear and denial of age. I say “our” culture, generally referring to people from the U.S., I don’t know how much this varies in other nations but I know it definitely varies. I worked a catering job with some Mexicans who all referred to one of the old women who worked with us as “abuela” – grandmother, for them a term of respect. It struck me that when American’s call an old woman they do not know, “Grandma” it is generally a term of disrespect.

  6. Thank You.
    Your insights, creative spirit and writing have given this 69 year old more pleasure than I can say.

  7. Thanks for sharing that. i’m already tired of those who tell me “you’re only as old as you think you are. You don’t look old. My mother’s 70 and she grows her own wheat, mills her own flour, makes her own bread, does yoga, spins all her own yarn and is hand rearing 7 grandchildren for fun and profit… blahblahblah.” Actually i *think* i’m 67 but my skeleton thinks it’s 81. And all the good thoughts in the world won’t let me dance all night ever again, bike across hills and dales, hike 5 miles or carry babies all over a zoo as i once did. Let me be happy i did those things (smartly) at the time i was able.

    And stop committing spiritual abuse telling me my reality, my pain, my life of well-lived years don’t matter.
    And thanks as always, dear Ursula, for saying it right once again.

  8. What a wonderful article! The distinction between decision and opinion expressed some of my thoughts on this matter so perfectly!

    Many friends and family members close to me have experienced mental “illness,” and have survived truly trying circumstances, only to find complete strangers telling them to think positively. Which would be okay, except “positive thinking,” for these strangers, seems to involve a denial of everything that has made my friends who they are. This is so frustrating.

    Thanks for writing this article and combating those notions!

  9. a great piece. I just love the challenge to think and to be. Thank you so much for posting… I have linked up for all my students to read.

  10. The only way ‘Positive Thinking’ isn’t just plain old denial? There has to be acceptance of the negative part, an analysis of it, and a decision to find a way to deal with it or fix it.
    I suffer from a couple of (albeit relatively small) learning disabilities. My problems are often addressed by those who don’t get it with comments which minimize my problems and utterly ignore reality.
    There is very little I can do about the things that cause my behavior (which is utterly normal to me) to drive others nuts.
    So be it.
    They lose the pleasure of my company.

  11. I’m one of the formerly-young at 52. In my present day job, I work with young people from multiple cultures that preserve reverence for elders. I’m just at the edge of that country now, and beginning to realize the wealth that is accumulated in a lifetime of thinking, observation, and acting, when one’s personal experience begins to merge with historical experience. (Not least, one develops an eerie four-dimensional sense of what the fools are going to do next.) When my protege(e)s say, “Wow, you know so much!” I am happy to send them dispatches from the road ahead.

    Many of the Ojibwe and Dakota young adults I know are involved with the language reclamation effort, a race against time to preserve what these elders (not oldsters or seniors or geezers) know that no one else alive knows now. No one there is so foolish as to pretend that old is not old, or mortal not mortal. It gives me the shivers to think about how many times this particular story has been replicated, where physical and cultural genocide have completed themselves in the breaking of that line of transmission.

    Throughout my life I have been grateful to those who gave warning of the road ahead. My own negotiation of the treacherous shoals of academia (as a young female person a mere generation or two from the factory and the farm) I owe nearly entirely to the warnings of women writers of your generation and older. Thank you for another such.

    And thank you, with many honorifics attached, for your lifetime of work. Your novels and essays gave me both hope, example, and standard when I was an apprehensive beginning writer in my teens. In particular, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and your essay collection The Language of the Night confirmed my sense that writing science fiction and fantasy novels was a noble calling and worth the lifetime that it would claim.

  12. You are amazing! Any “young” person who has the chance to sit with you, walk with you, or ride beside you on a plane, is a fool if they don’t have the sense to close their mouth and listen. My God, what a gift that would be! I’ve learned so much from your books and your blog and have the brains to know all ages in our brief lives each bring their own challenges, but none is greater than old age with the loss of so many friends and loved ones and mortality biting at your joints and tearing at your spine. One of the things I love most about your writing (and you as a person) is the generosity of your honesty. You are not stingy with the truth – THANK GOD! I love that you returned to Earthsea and gave Tenar, Ged and Ogion back to us your readers, as real people who have grown old and not just experienced triumph but also loss – and more importantly suffered for it. Hell yes old age is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot or liar ( no mater how young they might be) – but thank goodness we have a person (and a writer) like you to make it personal and give the truth of that experience to us as a written gift from which to learn and appreciate. Thank you Ursula K. Le Guin – thank you for your writing, your wit, your wisdom, your tears and for soldering on through the daily pains that most of us are oblivious to. Like I said at the beginning of this – you are amazing!

  13. The Booby Prize? The Consolation Prize? The Diminished Prize?

    Ursula K. Le Guin. You are my most important author. I have been listening to you all my life, so I guess it is kind of odd that in my world which is colored by a kind of internet dyslexia I have found this moment to start talking back. Thank you for this blog post and for everything else you have written.

    I would just like to respond however, that old age, with all its inherent problems, -including that of ignorant and callow youth, is also kind of a gift. Its something that happens by coincidence, (unless one believes in the power of positive thinking) or because of specific strengths in an individuals genetic coding, (also not anything controlled by virtuousness or “earned” in any other was as a reward for good behavior or “positive thought”…) but also kind of a gift nonetheless. I would like to share some things, which are not facts, nor even opinions or theories, but just reactions, from my gut, to stuff I am dealing with. Most of it has to do with me but I will conclude with a thought that also relates back to you, Ursula K. Le Guin.

    I am something of a musician and I was on my way to a gig at a senior center the evening that my father died, way too early, (65) of cancer. When I called his apartment to check in with the elder care giver, and she explained that he had passed, and handed the phone over to a police officer, who was on the scene because he had died at home, -one of the things I experienced was a kind of panicked rage, -towards the audience of the gig I was intended to perform that evening. For while the residents of this senior center were in no way to blame for my father’s illness or his death, -and while on a rational level my reaction was perhaps a little bit absurd, I found that I was, among other things, (and the experience of death brings on a torrent of emotions,) ragingly angry at these elderly people because of the unfairness of the fact that they had been offered the opportunity to experience old age, and my father hadn’t. One could argue that 65 is “old enough” and I can se from previous comments here that there are some people, also people who are in the process of dying, -that feel that this is so. But my father did not. He was also ragingly and intensely angry about the fact of his own passing, pretty much until a week or so before the actual event when the pain was so bad that all he could really do was ask for an increase in the frequent doses of morphine that he was receiving. And Ursula, -if it is true that it is incomprehensibly arrogant, condescending and small-minded to suggest that the power of positive thinking can undo the illnesses and infirmities of advanced age, -isn’t it even more so to suggest that the same should negate the rage and resentment an individual feels, when faced with their own annihilation at a moment when they themselves do not feel that they are ready to go? I am reminded of this again because now my best friend passed last month at the age of 50 and some weeks. He was an individual who packed more life into those 50 years than any random collection of 50 75 year olds have experienced, -but again, -he has been denied the gift of old age.
    Ursula, I am not writing all this to criticize or even to disagree with the ideas that you have shared, because I agree with what you have written here, but also I think that the issues I raise here, have to addressed, in connection with what you have shared.
    I think also in terms of history that we are lucky that you are still around and for my sake I hope that you live for a really long time because as a 50 year old I am terrified by the way that the world is changing, and I am also furious at the way that the young are completely ignorant of the things that have shaped just the world that I live in and the informed choices that are necessary to be made, as I understand them from the lifetime that I have lived.
    Ursula K. Le Guin I hope that you will continue shouting from the rafters for as long as you can because, in a world which is fast becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of John Galt, I am depressingly certain that younger people will soon have no idea who Shevek was, never mind why he needed to exist.
    I love you Ursula. Keep up the good work.

  14. The thing is every time I think I am old, I throw that time away in one way or another because ‘now I am old’ and it is too late. Ten years later I look back and say, ‘What a waste of youth’.

    At one time what I wished for my life was to be is wise. I have discovered with time that simply wanting that is as foolish. The more I learn the more I find how little I know. I also learn that my ‘truths’ and ‘wisdom’ only fit me.

    I have wasted too much time not perfecting my craft because I kept thinking I could not do so on a part time basis and by the time I would retire my job of necessity I would be too old to ever become ‘successful’ at the work that feeds my soul. I don’t want to be spry, feisty, wise, youthful or any other ‘compliment’ to old age. I am soon to be 65 and I am going to work my tail off becoming the best ceramicist I can possibly be so that hopefully when I am 85 I can look back and not say ‘what a waste of life’ but ‘wow, what a great journey’.

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  16. Thank you for writing this. I often have a rush of panic that I may be too old to do something. Or that something I have done in the past may have been the last time in my life. So last night I did a handstand. It took 6 tries to get both legs over my head and touch the wall behind me but gave me such a rush of pleasure that this weekend I’m going to try and see if I can still do a cartwheel. Is this resisting old age?

  17. I think if people stopped automatically equating old with death it would be easier. Our western culture is not exactly death-friendly. Most run the other way, avoid and deny because it is just too scarey.
    I am grateful for my Buddhist studies and practice which makes death a little friendlier for me. Not THAT friendly but friendlier.
    If one is running from death, they also tend to run from oldsters because the obvious physical diminished qualities of them reminds others of death. I remember feeling that I was never going to die and I liked it that way.

    I think modern technology has not taught patience to anyone and youngsters don’t even have enough of that to stick around to listen to someone with slightly slower processing when responding. !
    Then there’s the blaming. In my travels around the internet I have noticed a lot of boomer bashing and how we left subsequent generations with nothing.
    I mean it’s complex.
    There’s the obvious fact that a good part of the population is ‘following their leaders’ in terms of ethics and attitudes. So there’s the Darwinian free-for-all aspect as well.

    I will be turning 70 in January. I live in a remote area and have noticed the visits of friends and acquaintances waning somewhat. Having a chronic pain problem, I don’t get out that much. With no children I feel i have little opportunities to pass on my wisdom and knowledge. I like to be able to upload it somewhere as a legacy.
    I’m hoping at least it drifts into the collective unconscious and could be beneficial somehow to someone, somewhere.

  18. I’m hitting 60 soon. Some of the aches and pains are here, but nothing compared to the existential fatigue. Truth be told I look forward to the sunset, perhaps naively.
    I desperately want to withdraw from subjection to the pervasiveness of cultural mindlessness (as in fact I already have) and mine the remainder of my time for that understanding and peace of mind you mention as a possibility of aging.

    Oh, and have more time to fight like hell for the endangered living – all of them!

    As always, your words mentor my spiritual path. They always have; they always will, as I hope to fill my hands from the well of art until reading is no longer possible. There is no way to thank you for sharing the unique insight of your mind’s light.

    I hope to look into forever with those who have taught me to see.

  19. Thank you for starting this thread. Here is a poem it inspired. (The lines are supposed to be centered; I don’t know how they’ll come out after I cut and paste.)


    “It’s your thoughts
    that make you suffer,” a book on meditation
    . suggests. Well, maybe, ok, let’s observe some.
    For instance:

    I can’t write much now, too sad sometimes, low energy, trapped.
    I may not get my manuscript finished, proofread,
    published, or organize my other manuscripts
    for an archive. They’ll all get lost, my life’s work.

    I’m not taking care of my garden.
    I cherished every plant, raised most from seed,
    even trees (three cornelian cherry dogwoods,
    two giant Douglas firs—got those the seeds in a cereal box).
    But now I’ve put off watering this dry summer,
    and even harvesting—eggplants, peppers, onions, beets,
    beans, celeriac struggling to grow among the weeds.

    And the house where I’ve lived for the last
    43 years, too much now to sweep & neaten, etc., etc.
    We must move, live in a smaller, less isolated, more manageable place.
    But I can’t make myself sort the books, my old friends,
    banishing them to the book sale.

    OK, thoughts, I’ve observed you, and you’re still here,
    not just thoughts, but
    And I am trying to accept my sadness, breathe,
    find ways to accept it all
    But I’m still very sad, and—

    My mind falters, flickers, blanks out, leads me to grey places,
    shifting, fading. I can’t trust it, this new, vague, self.
    Can’t remember the day of the week, make lists,
    put them down, lose them.
    Did I remember
    to take my pills? Pay the bills: credit card? Insurance? Fill
    prescriptions? Water the house plants, otherwise
    they’ll die.
    Can’t count on living my life, competently, taking care.
    I face this, every day,
    & it will get worse. No cure.

    A transparent tent.
    Cut off. Lonely.
    That’s almost the worst of it.
    If I try to explain how things are for me now,
    my younger friends cut me off. “Oh, I forget too!” they tell me,
    eagerly, over and over, drowning me out,
    “Why, I go into a room, can’t remember what I wanted!
    But it’s nothing, nothing!”

    I shut up.
    I’ve said that too,
    thousands of times. Especially to my mother.
    And my friends’ problems do seem more real:
    continuing physical pain. Betrayals. Losses.
    They do care for me, don’t want to think I’ll fade,
    Or think it could happen to them.

    But I wish
    I could find a friend who could listen,
    say simply, gently, “Yes. I see. “

    OK, thoughts, I’ve observed you, and you’re not just thoughts, but
    And you don’t go away, or not for long.
    I’m trying to learn to accept, live with you.
    I’m working on my breathing,
    and I am still breathing. And most of the time
    I really am almost okay.

    Dying itself, that I don’t mind.
    Don’t want to suffer pain, but if it got bad,
    it would be all right if I could choose
    when I wanted to come to the end of it:

    and then, my family there, holding hands,
    being able to tell them how much each one
    has meant to me, how their shining
    has lit up my life, given it meaning, joy.

    I’d like that. I wouldn’t be lonely then,

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