I wrote a couple of weeks ago about ageism and have been thinking more about the issue. I greatly dislike the word, and I feel as though I’m whining when I use it. So I won’t use it here, although I haven’t got a good substitute to hand yet.
The first time I remember encountering these ideas I was 17 and saw the new George Burns movie Going in Style. It’s about three old men who decline to fade away as they are expected to. My grandmother and I surprised each other with our different reactions to it, and neither of us was very happy with the other’s point of view, although I think we both learned something.
The larger society I live in “worships” youth — well, this verb is some degrees sourer than what I actually mean, but the approximate sense is right and I can’t find a better one right now. Our preference for youth in all things goes with our fetish for innovation, which permeates the system of values that we encounter in popular media. And yet there are many people in this society whose lives bear no resemblance to what they encounter in popular media. Since I am one of them, my choice is not to spend much time dealing with popular media, but there is still a moment of shock when people who deal with it regularly come face to face with me and I with them — we revive the surprise my grandmother and I had thirty-five years ago.
When I learned to live in Chinese society, one of the hardest things to get used to was the deference everyone paid to the old, to tradition, and above all to the notion that the West was misguided in its preference for youth and innovation. Even in China today, with many trappings of Western-style youth-“worship” now evident, there is still a sense that a particular strength of East Asian society is the way it views tradition. You hear about this all the time — for instance, it is a commonplace that “Westerners don’t take care of their parents when they get old.” That isn’t true at all, as I can see when I look at how my school-mates have dealt with their parents’ decline. But I try to remember to see past my first taking of offense when a Chinese person says this — they are really making a statement about the society and the tradition to which they affiliate themselves, differentiating that from what they perceive as the intrinsic character of the West.
And yet I think many people in East Asia find the identification with tradition there suffocating to about the same extent people here do. I think there is a third way, in which no one stage of life is fetishized.
On this subject, here is Analects 2:4:
[Confucius said,] “When I was fifteen, my will was set on learning. [In the study of traditional rites] I was finally able to stand on my own at thirty and at forty I was no longer confused about things. I understood what Heaven’s path was for me at fifty and at sixty my ear was willing to hear it. Now, at seventy, I can follow every inclination without overstepping some stricture.”
It is a strange passage. What does it mean? What lesson did Confucius’s moralizing students intend to be taken from it when they put it in their collection? Commentators tend to emphasize Confucius’s lifelong interest in study.
But as I read it, this is a passage about the stages of life and the different ways one perceives the path of that life. People who don’t grow old don’t have stages of life, of course. But to accept the worth of different stages of life is to accept oneself at any age.