There’s a fresh wind shaking the branches of the old oak trees of humanity. A whole generation of baby boomers at the golden zenith of their potential are growing new careers, committing to new relationships, scattering their creative offerings across a world on the brink of great social and cultural change. “Retirement” has become an anachronism in a new zeitgeist that sets fire to the taboo on old age and death. “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” said C.S. Lewis. In our communities, our families, our friendship circles, there are remarkable men and women who defy the stereotypes, say a quiet “yes” to the soft flutter in their belly to embrace all the possibilities that allow them to start reading fairy tales once more.
Leonard Cohen, at 77, has just released his latest album, “Old Ideas”, Engelbert Humperdinck at 75, has been nominated to represent the UK at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The British film industry, mirroring the collective lake of consciousness, has released two films dealing with ageing from very different perspectives; “ The Iron Lady” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman, Barbarba Streisland, Louise Hay, Dame “Judi” Dench, Oprah Winfrey… teachers, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and ordinary men and women living extra-ordinary lives – powerfully, positively, productively. As Pluto, god of the Underworld moves silently through the sign of Capricorn, the archetypes of the senex, and the crone are being embodied in these feisty elders, suggesting a gradual rebalancing of our collective cult of youth worship. Jane Fonda, now in her 70s is tackling Act III of her life with the same trailblazing revolutionary spirit that she brought to political causes, and the “go for the burn” fitness videos that plugged aerobics into the living rooms of millions of women. In her book, “Prime Time” , she cites studies that show that on average, (in the well-fed, medicated, war-free West, I assume) an average of 34 years have been added to human life expectancy. She describes how at 46, she began to envision the old woman she wanted to be, and quotes gerontologists who believe that threshold events like widowhood, loss of work, moving home, even a terminal illness, are not experienced as traumas “if they were anticipated and, in effect, rehearsed as part of the life cycle.” Although much of her book has a disease model approach to sexuality and health, it is a starting point for a more soulful approach to living a richly meaningful life. The longevity revolution will require a compass and a new course.
By the year 2020, eighty million Americans will be above the age of sixty. Senior citizens will outnumber young people under the age of 18. In “America the Wise” , Theodore Roszak writes of the implications of “the longevity revolution” on culture and social values. Roszak feels that we are “demographically illiterate” as a society and have not yet begun to grasp the implications of mass longevity. “Never before have elders possessed the social weight to make their values count in matters of policy and the distribution of wealth… The growing numbers of old people in America could bring about an unprecedented cultural shift toward a more nurturant caregiving ethos, an appreciation for social interdependence and cultivated leisure, a transcendence of competitive striving and status anxiety, and a greater appreciation of the wisdom that comes with age.” There are, of course, millions of older men and woman who feel alienated, invisible, and impotent. Millions who suffer physical and mental degeneration that shrinks their lives and darkens their purpose and meaning. “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for,” said Viktor Frankl. When roles of Parent, Partner, Executive, Homemaker, or Club affiliate are shed, shadowy stretches of depleted time merge soundlessly into months, years that slide into a dark pit of despondency and negativity. The weather becomes either too hot or too cold. A powerless refrain of lack of money, work, love, health, or support … buries us in the rubble of our concrete thoughts. Albert Camus said darkly, “alas, after a certain age, every man is responsible for his face,” and the truth of that stark statement is revealed in the mirror each morning.
So I guess it falls upon each one of us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives, to cultivate genuine gratitude for the little things: Waking each morning with the ability to get ourselves out of bed. The miracle of seeing the glistening dew on the grass, a coral sunrise, spring flowers. The enchanted chorus of birdsong. The stillness of our kitchen. A cup of hot tea. Our lungs that draw in lifegiving air, our brave hearts that faithfully beat, despite the heartache and disappointments we have endured. Only we can take the blindfold off our eyes. Only we can feel our hearts blossom open petal by fragrant petal. Only we can wear the crown of age, and embody wisdom and our authentic selves. Albert Camus says “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Only we can stand tall in the zenith of our lives, and delight in the reading of fairy tales.