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
The 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