The older I get, the more I wonder if I am ever going to feel wise, much less BE wise.
So honestly, what is getting older all about in our culture?
Every time I read a bitterly angry, spiteful, hateful comment from a reader, and in this particular case they have not earned the moniker Dear Reader, I am forever shocked when I realize that said commenter is well past fifty.
Decades ago before I myself passed that marker, I used to think that turning fifty was some kind of magic milestone. Women over fifty were wiser, I thought.
Until of course I got there myself and realized that turning fifty had nothing to do with being anything other than having existed five decades on this earth. The rest, dammit, is hard work.
As we continue to stew in our social media maelstrom, we reveal the opposite. I am fond of saying, not without some truth, that truly age only conveys wrinkles. If we want wisdom, that is Deep Work.
Too many of us don't choose Deep Work, and because of that, we end up being brats in old folk's skin. All we have to do is peruse online forums, read the ugly and hurtful comments hurled by people old enough to know better for our proof.
This morning I pulled up one of Maria Popova's pieces on getting older:
Right at the top I was deeply struck by this quote from Toni Morrison, one of the world's great bright lights:
“True adulthood,” Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings in her 2004 Wellesley College commencement address, “is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” (author bolded)
Popova goes on to quote another massively talented writer, another Black woman whose words have a way of slicing right to the heart of the matter, Maya Angelou:
“I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” (author bolded)
While I love the analogy, I fear that the behavior to which I and many others are subjected to online doesn't speak to innocence and shyness. It speaks instead to bitterness and hate, and the sandbox behavior of poorly-trained kindergartners into whom their parents didn't bother to instill any kind of basic manners.
I found in my own behavior the occasional ugly and spiteful spark, which I have worked assiduously to address. Not always successfully, but far more so the more I remove myself from the idiot wilds of social media.
Part of wisdom is knowing what you do, when, where and why. That knowledge can lead us to make better emotional decisions, but not always, as the dopamine hit for making others pay for the sadness in our lives is one hell of an attraction.
Someone needs to pay for my pain.
Give that person a gun and you have America, ca.2022.
Growing old doesn't always entail growing up. Growing up involves learning restraint, one characteristic sadly lacking in America today. I have to wonder how much better a world we might have if we restrained our online time.
It takes great wisdom to get our wrinkled butts out of those places where we are tempted to be jerks and assholes to one another.
Popova makes, as she so often does (which is why I support her financially) a magnificent observation here:
Perhaps the most difficult beauty and the hardest-won glory of true adulthood is the refusal, vehement and countercultural and proud, to relinquish our inner magnolias as we grow older, declining to sacrifice them at the altar-register of a culture that continually robs us of our self-worth and tries to sell it back to us at the price of the latest product. (author bolded)
This stunning point is for me, the heart of it. I say the same thing but she says it better.
I write regularly about ageism and age hate, which is rife in this country of so many hateful -isms. We are trained and exhorted to hate who and what we are, be it Black or White or Brown, or young or old, or fat or thin, or whatever that may be. When we hate what and who we are, the American Marketing Machine offers us a plethora of (fake) products to fix what we cannot change. No wonder we end up bitter.
I bought into those lies, and it cost me forty years from about fifteen to fifty-five. I cannot get those years back. However, I can, as we all can, choose to redirect my energies, take the losses I suffered at the hands of evil men and a skewed culture that values money over humanity and nature, and build a whole new kind of life. That, for me, at least, is the beginning of real wisdom.
Nelson Mandela used to have a city residence right next door to a dear friend of mine in Johannesburg. I visited her on several occasions, always hoping that he would, as he was wont to do, wander into her kitchen without warning, and quietly ask her to give him a Tarot Card reading. She was very good at it. She was quite accustomed to having this extraordinary person quietly appear.
He never did. However, that proximity to him via my friendship with my friend led me to look into his life, and to consider how he evolved into the remarkable person he became while robbed of so many years. In a remote way, I can relate.
Many of us allow ourselves to be robbed of decades, with our full permission. We may not know it at the time, but the inability to be in the moment, the intense rush to be productive costs us our lives. Now, with up to eleven hours a day on our devices, we are not being in life enough so that we ripen instead of rot.
The age bell is tolling for all that time spent scrolling, and none of that time is growing us into wisdom. We are simply consuming trash, and not evolving as a result.
Mandela had nowhere to hide from himself. When you and I are put in solitary confinement with ourselves, what do we discover? Can we walk those empty hallways of our internal houses, or wander the potentially lush gardens of our imaginations and allow those experiences to help us flourish?
Or do we shrink with great fear from those very experiences which invite us to evolve into a person of great gravitas?
One reason I love Popova's work is that she quotes liberally from great minds, and in doing so her work is peppered with extraordinary material from great Black women writers. In this case Morrison, who really was one of the monumental writers of our time, and Angelou, whose troubled history as a child may well have formed the springboard for the power of her words.
Because of my upbringing, I am deeply drawn to Black women, and those great writers whose words slash past the lies we tell ourselves and speak to the beating heart of our humanity. I find immense solace in these women and their wisdom even as I have to fend off the ugly comments from those people who aged into angry brats and spoiled adults. People, it appears to me, whose anxiousness and resentment that life didn't give them what they thought they deserved seem to feel it perfectly appropriate to lash out at anyone they feel has it better.
That's not wisdom. That's not being a grownup.
Henry Miller wrote (again, below two more curated Popova quotes):
If you can fall in love again and again,” Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated the measure of a life well-lived on the precipice of turning eighty, “if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half-licked.”
I receive regular input from commenters in their seventies and eighties, people who are much farther along than I and for whom the journey's end is very much in sight. The best of those speak of what works, what they love, what they treasure and appreciate. That is wisdom.
To that, the inimitable Bertrand Russell:
Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.
You can see why I read The Marginalian.
This meme showed up on Linked In, and speaks to why I have little patience for those gray hairs who hate:
Living an extraordinary life often happens out of horrific circumstances. Angelou was raped at seven-and-a-half. Mandela lost decades in prison. I could go on. It isn't what happens to us, is what we do with those experiences. Wisdom, which for me can ripen as we age towards our life's end, is made up of our ability to be deeply grateful for all of it.
ALL of it.
What happened to me, the rapes, the incest, the eating disorders, all the ugly and painful circumstances are part and parcel of how I better understand the world and the suffering I see in it. I can use that empathy to make space for understanding why people do what they do.
By the same token I am now wise enough to set boundaries and block those people whose untrammeled hate has no boundaries.
I'm not always successful. But I sure as hell work at it. And that makes all the difference.
I have returned with a grateful heart to more reading, and scrolling has taken a distant back seat. The quality of life that has returned is remarkable. I recommend it. For that has revitalized a great deal of joy and hope.
The dance is to be able to be youthful, joyous and grateful no matter what halo of grey hair we wear. The soft folds of a magnolia blossom, which dotted the Southern landscape of my youth, can still be soft and supple and fragrant inside me. Wisdom allows that to happen.
For part of wisdom is understanding the difference between trying forever to be young, which we cannot have, and evolving into being perpetually youthful in attitude, which can often only be achieved through great pain and loss.