In this old essay, in which I discuss the three archetypal Saturn cycles of 30 years each, I am amused to realize that I wrote it in 1986, when I was only 43! What did I know about the entire second cycle (30 to 60), and especially, what did I think I know — in fact, how dare I think I know — about the third cycle (60 to 90)? Now that I am 75, and halfway through the third Saturn cycle, I do know a thing or two about all three cycles; and indeed, it’s this ‘knowledge,” or yes, let’s do call it “wisdom” instead, that I am attempting to pass along by publishing these old A.K. Reader essays, which span a number of decades, during which I was writing, writing, writing, always I have been writing. It’s what I “do,” when not otherwise engaged. And even when otherwise engaged, I’m utilizing whatever experiences I’ve been undergoing to glean meaning from them and write all that down.
In any case, even though much of what I’m referring to in this old essay is “theoretical,” since I hadn’t yet experienced it, even so, I’m amazed that I did get the “theory” right. In particular, this third or “wisdom” cycle is one in which I feel both here and not here, in this world and yet not of it. Both. Simultaneously. And while I can talk more specifically about it now, back then I could already see it as an organic development of the experiences I was having then, and my way of working with them and through them. So hats off to my younger self!
BTW: the story about my friend Joan and her parents was really about me and my parents. They were still alive back then, so I needed to pretend to be somebody else.
SATURN AND THE AGING PROCESS (1986)
Senior Citizen or Elder?
For as long as I remember, I have wanted to be 65 years old. This longing strikes most people as odd. Why would I want to skip the best years of my life? But I figure the older the better, and now that I speak the language of astrology, it’s been easier to say why.
I begin with a true story.
My friend Joan tells of a memorable encounter she had with her parents. She was visiting them for the weekend, and on Sunday night they decided to go to a movie. An unusual event, she said, it was the first time they had ever done this sort of thing together. The movie was called Cocoon, and it turned out to be about old people, people like her parents. About their encounter with alien beings and eventual lift-off from the planet. That film was in some ways a breakthrough, Joan told me. It treated older people as real people, with sexual and emotional feelings, their very real fears balanced by surprising needs for exploration. But, she added, it did so in comic fashion, patronizing; old people were seen as cute, kind of silly, endearing, not to be taken seriously.
On the way home from the movie Joan sat in the back seat of the car. Tentatively, she brought up her feelings about the movie. Said it was entertaining, but at the expense of the dignity and respect old people deserve. After all, she said to the two grey heads facing the other direction in front of her, how else do we gain wisdom, if not from experience, and who has more experience than those who have lived a long time?
At this point her mother abruptly changed the subject. This caught Joan off-guard, as usual, until she sat back and remembered that this was what her mother always did, whenever her daughter started talking seriously about anything. Once again, she resolved to stop talking about important things in front of her parents, since it made her mother so uncomfortable.
The next morning the three of them were enjoying a farewell breakfast in a local restaurant. Joan’s father, usually silent during these visits, suddenly broke in: “Tell me more about what you were talking about in the car last night.” This time her mother, surprised by his interest in what their daughter had said, did not try to change the conversation. Also amazed he had remembered, Joan launched eagerly into the distinction between “knowledge” and “wisdom.”
“Knowledge,” she said, “is based upon the accumulation of facts, but wisdom comes from reflection upon experience. The first a computer can do, the second only humans can. No number of facts will ever add up to one iota of wisdom. We can accumulate thousands of facts and still be ignorant of the things that really count in life. Wisdom seems to be something that depends upon the amount of time we spend being alive, and upon our sensitivity to the feedback that results from continuous interaction with the world. This is what the phrase “learning from experience” means. And at best, we usually only give lip service to this idea.”
As Joan talked, both of her parents were silent — but with a difference. Her father was listening closely; her mother was obviously anxious. Hoping to ease her mother’s fears, Joan then asked her about a brother, what was his life like now, how were his two little girls. Visibly relieved, her mother resume her usual vivacity, telling and retelling what she knew best, family news.
Within a few minutes Joan’s father looked at his watch, rose from the table, and announced he had to go to the hospital. It was morning, and he had to “make his rounds.” Something he had been doing for nearly 40 years now. Something he was finally almost done with. A young internist had just agreed to take over his practice. At the age of 70, my friend’s father was about to embark on a new life. A life with new interests. From a lifetime of reading medical books, he was now reading theology, preparing or his new vocation as a “deacon” in the Catholic church.
Joan’s mother, two years younger than her father, had spent her entire life looking after him and their eight children. Now the children were gone, and her husband was about to embark on a new career. What was her role, her identity? Joan got the feeling that her mother didn’t know, was confused and afraid.
Approximately nine months later, my friend made the usual bi-weekly phone call to her parents. This time only her father was home. They talked. He told her he’s not much interested in facts anymore. That he hopes his experience in the world has brought him some wisdom. He had, apparently, forgotten that conversation with his daughter! She didn’t mind, she assured me. What could be more gratifying than having her father incorporate what she had said into his life? However, she still worried about her mother.
When Older is Not Better
Joan is right. Most people don’t learn from their experience. Instead, they repeat themselves. Difficult or otherwise painful experiences are best “forgotten,” these people say; “what is past is past.” Because they don’t reflect on what has gone on before, they end up doing it over again. They repeat the pattern that caused them pain before. Without knowing why or how or even that they are doing it, they blindly beat their heads against the same wall.
How many people do you know who marry one alcoholic after another? Or who keep on being “accident-prone”? Or who spend their entire lives mindlessly accumulating more, more — money, marriages, things, power, prestige? Meanwhile, life seems to have passed them by. They’ve lost out, somehow. Something is missing. But what, what? What is it that makes them feel so empty, so flat, so alone?
But no, no questions, don’t ask questions, don’t rock the boat. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Instead, retreat, to the privacy of our own homes, or nursing homes, nursing our own private rituals, watching TV, waiting to die. Or we join others of our own kind, in Sun City, or in processions of Airstream trailers. We see the sights, play golf, play cards. We are “having fun” now, now that we’re retired.
Or we continue in the world as usual, but our attitude has changed. It is subtle, it is hard to see, but it is cynical, and it kills. (This cynicism is often mistaken for “wisdom.”) We assume nothing good ever comes; after all, nothing good has ever come to us! — and we spray this venom over every person we meet, every street we walk, every project we join. We are closed down, hardened, full of judgments. Denying our own vitality, we keep alive cherished judgments from the past. We grow rigid, cold, old.
We die. Or, we’re afraid to die.
So we get sick, our hearts break (heart attack), or we hang on to old wounds (cancer) or we turn so brittle emotionally that our aching bones immobilize us (arthritis). Sickness is the usual course old age takes in our society; this is what we have to look forward to! So we work hard — for “social security,” and join pension plans, and make our wills, and make sure our medical policies are sound. This is how we think of our old age; this is what we try to both prepare for and ward off as long as we can.
This attitude towards old age and the aging process is unfortunate. It is also necessary. Each stage of our lives offers qualities specifically appropriate to that stage. Moreover, each stage builds upon the one before it. Without the activity of young, there would be nothing to reflect upon in old age. Were we to live our lives with this developmental understanding, we would realize that older can be better, richer, fuller, more complete.
In astrology, the planet Saturn symbolizes the aging process. My friend Joan’s parents, 68 and 70 years old, are in the stage of life astrologers call “the third cycle of Saturn.” Her father seems to have adjusted nicely to its demands, but her mother is still not comfortable with what this cycle asks of her.
The Astrological Saturn
The planet astronomers identify as “Saturn” in the sky is said by astrologers to be representative on the physical plane of a certain quality of energy, a particular spiritual principle. Given the normal human life span, this particular planetary energy can complete approximately three cycles in one lifetime. The astrologer identifies three archetypal cycles that, ideally, everyone can experience. These cycles are each approximately 30 years long, for a total (ideal) lifespan of 90 years.
Astrological time is cyclical time, as are the meanings assigned to its various planetary symbols. The actual meaning of any planetary energy is identical to its orbit, the amount of time it takes to carve out its own space once. The 30-year cycle of Saturn is the longest a human being can experience within one lifetime — unless he or she lives to be approximately 84 years old, in which case a full Uranus cycle can also be experienced. (Uranus signifies sudden, lightning-like, unpredictable changes. Can you imagine that eureka moment, when it all lights up like a flash, when 84 years of your life crystallize out in front of you whole? Likewise, when people die at 84 years, the cause is often said to be sudden — e.g., a heart attack, stroke, or sudden accident.)
The symbol of Saturn is, like all astrological symbols, multidimensional. No clear-cut, literal definition can pin Saturn down, nor even any single set of definitions. Its meaning is not fixed; it is open, and flexible, and continuously changing to adapt to the culture within which it is being used. As the inner meaning of a dream depends upon the dreamer and seems to elude our most determined efforts t interpret it, so too do Saturn and other astrological symbols confound the rational mind. Each of these symbols includes a complex and shifting field of meanings, radiating out from a central, mysterious core.
Saturn can symbolize form, definition, identity, discipline; negatively, it can signify oppression, inhibition, blockage, manipulation. The first way of utilizing the Saturn energy builds character and a certain nobility of spirit; the second way leads to cynicism, bitterness, a certain rigidity of body, mind and spirit.
Saturn is the view we have of the future, based upon the way we have experienced the past. It signifies our focus on long-range goals, and the means we use to achieve them. Saturn brings things into manifestation; it makes things “real.” It carries the qualities of focus, concentration, endurance, staying power, patience — all of which are necessary if we are to bring our dreams to fruition.
Before the first cycle of Saturn is complete, we really don’t have the kind of foundation we need to base our view of the future on our experience of the past. Indeed, when we are young we seldom think about either the past or the future. The past is simply what happened to us, and when, in what order. That order itself, however, is not seen as meaningful. We do not look for cause and effect during the first cycle of Saturn. We don’t care. We haven’t yet recognized that actions determine consequences. And as for the future? Why it is an infinite field, wide-open, waiting for us to explore? We can do anything, go anywhere, become anyone, if only we put our minds to it! — All true, of course, but this view of a boundless future takes on very different connotations depending upon how old we are. For those under 30 this statement expresses the naïve optimism typical of this age. For those over 30, this statement reflects a decision, perhaps one of considerable courage, given our knowledge of our limits.
The First Saturn Return
We don’t fully experience our limits until Saturn completes its cycle, returning to the degree it occupied at birth for the first time. Before this return the future travels forward forever; our lives are wide open; we feel immortal. After 30, we experience time differently. Even though our culture still runs on clock time, still promotes an endless future of “progress,” we know better. Our bodies know better. We are not as fit as before. We can’t run effortlessly over the fields, simply for the sheer joy of it anymore. We can’t go back and redo what we did at 18, either. We’d like to go back and do it again, differently, but we can’t. The presence of our children, fruit of that long ago passionate union, reminds us. What we did back then has consequences now. And somehow we have to remember it all, take responsibility for it all. Somehow we have to face up to the way we have lived up until this time, make sense of it, see it whole. As the Saturn cycle closes in on itself, so does our life itself seem to temporarily close down. Thirty years of life contract into a single, unifying perspective.
This way of talking is, of course, idealized. We don’t usually experience that “single unifying perspective” in one eureka moment — if at all. Life is messy, disorganized, full of distractions. Rarely does an important truth stare us in the face. Rather, we catch glimpses, tantalizing, rare — and yearn for more. Moreover, only a few people really do experience the return of Saturn to its original place at 30 in full consciousness, recognizing it as both the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Even so, the idealized meaning of the Saturn return is worth clarifying. As an abstract outline, one complete cycle of Saturn does define a deep archetypal structure in our lives.
As the second cycle of Saturn commences, we begin to recognize our mortality. We know we will die, and what we shall do with the time we have left becomes an increasingly urgent matter. We grow more practical, more efficient in the use of our time. We focus on what kinds of goals we do want to achieve, and how we shall go about achieving them. (Practicality, efficiency, goals, focus — all these are traditionally associated with the planet Saturn.) From this new perspective we can view our first 30 years as a time of experimentation, moving from one interest to another. Or, we can now see how, during those years, we were slavishly following — or rebelling against — the line of least resistance as set by others. Now, for the first time, we begin to make a more or less conscious assessment of our skill and abilities, and decide to limit ourselves to what we know we can do.
During the first cycle of Saturn we gradually learn what our society considers “real.” We carve out of the infinite vastness a set of constraints which set the parameters for our own identity, what we shall think about, how we shall govern our lives. Different societies limit reality differently; each society has its own set of parameters, its own way of making sense of human experience. “Reality” for the Hopi Indian is not experienced in the same way as it is for modern day Americans.
Our society’s views of “success,” and what goals are worth striving for; its attitude towards “progress” and “getting ahead” — these and other assumptions are drilled into us from all sides during those first 30 years. Without being fully aware of it, our culture’s assumptions seep into our psyches. What was outside becomes inside. Without even knowing it, we believe. We believe in our assumptions, we believe in what our society has taught us is real. We limit ourselves to those assumptions, we conform.
In our middle 20s these assumptions are unconscious, inviolate. We have been brainwashed. By the time we are somewhere between 27 and 30 years old, however, we begin to wake up. What was obvious is now worth looking at, and indeed might be even open to question, to change. The rules of our 20s become transparent in our 30s. We see through them. We don’t take them nearly as seriously as we did before.
During the first 30 years we look to the outside to tell us what is real and how we measure up. During the year to 18 months that it takes to go through the first Saturn return we switch gears. We begin to recognize our own inner world, and from now on, life is assessed by how well we are fulfilling our own potential. From being “outer-directed” we change to being “inner-directed.” We march to the beat of a different drummer than those who have not yet gone through their Saturn returns — as well as those who have gone through them, but unconsciously.
Not everyone makes the change I describe here, remember, and even when they do, it is not always at this age, but later — at around 36-37, when Saturn “squares” (makes a 90-degree angle) to itself; at around 43-44 when Saturn “opposes” itself (a 180° angle), or even later. Each successive 7+ years that we have gone through before making the change renders us more entrenched, and the switch that much more difficult. Often those who change at 36-37 describe the years of their early 30s as “a waste,” they talk of how “bored” they felt. These feelings are a natural response to the attempt to relive the conditions of the first 30 years. Alternatively, we can change, and live out the second 30-year cycle according to its own, very different demands.
The first Saturn return can be experienced consciously or unconsciously. We decide to take responsibility for our lives or we attempt to avoid it. From then on, either we repeat an old pattern, circling round once again the same way, or we turn that circling into a spiral, reaching ever higher and deeper into our selves.
If the first return of Saturn to its original position in the zodiac is not experienced with real awareness, if we do not allow ourselves to undergo the review process this return demands, then Saturn turns into a wall, a defense we throw up to shield ourselves from a larger reality. If we do consciously face up to the first 30 years of our lives, then Saturn can begin to function as a channel, admitting that larger reality into our beings. (In astrology, the three “outer” planets — Uranus, Neptune and Pluto — with cycles of 84, 165 and 248 years symbolize that larger reality respectively.)
To some extent we can identify people over 30 as either “dead” or “alive.” The alive ones feel lively, vital, full of wonder, still open to exploration, trusting in the universe. Open to new experience, they do not feel terror in the face of the unknown, but surrender to it as a gift from the future. And the “dead” ones, unfortunately, feel like lost souls, depressed, numb, habit-bound, rigid, limited in outlook and capacity to respond to their own experience, deadened to their own larger life.
The Second Saturn Return
Like the first Saturn return at 30, the second return of Saturn at 60 is also ideally, a review process. We close down the second 30 years of our lives. We reflect upon what we have already done, and then go forward from that point, building upon what we have learned. Alternatively, we attempt to repeat what we have already experienced. So, again, we can say that people over 60 are either dead or alive. The live ones are lively, vital, full of wonder, and the dead ones are waiting to die.
In their formal structures, the first and second Saturn returns can be analyzed the same way. In both our late 20s and our late 50s we undergo a process that both ends one cycle and initiates a new one. As real live processes, however, the first and second Saturn returns are experienced quite differently.
During the second cycle of Saturn — from 30 to 60 years — we are capable, for the first time, of utilizing the Saturn function consciously and creatively. We can focus on our real world goals and achieve them. During the third cycle of Saturn — from 60 to 90 years — this focus on worldly goals is no longer necessary. We learned how to do this in the second cycle; now we need a new challenge.
Yet what is this third cycle of Saturn? How, ideally, would it differ from those which have gone before?
During the first Saturn return at 30, we were initiated into our adulthood, and began to take full responsibility for our lives. The second Saturn return at 60 initiates us into another phase of our lives altogether, one which, in our culture, is both feared and ignored.
We don’t want to grow old; we don’t want to be reminded that those poor old people we see walking haltingly down the street are ourselves, someday, not too long hence. So we don’t think about it. We go along as before, pretending we are forever young, forcing our bodies to perform exactly as they always did, though, damn it, it’s harder and harder to run those five miles, to pull that boat out of the water, to make love all night long. Or, we sink into oblivion, zoning out on TV, not moving, not caring, just eating, sleeping, smoking, drinking, more and more and more.
This denial of the aging process, this fear and loathing of the destiny of absolutely every one of us, is not just an individual problem, it is cultural. Our systematic ignorance of the unique and extraordinary meaning possible during this phase of our lives has ripped a great hole within the fabric of our society. Even astrologers usually ignore the third cycle of Saturn, that very special time in our lives when we are privileged to view the long trajectory of our lives as a whole.
Let us look again at the three cycles of Saturn, this time from a more abstract point of view. Let us view these cycles from a perspective that includes them all as phases within a three-part process. Hopefully, this more wholistic way of understanding our lives may help us get in touch with the hidden meaning within the so-called “aging process.”
Life as a Three-Phase Saturn Process
We come to earth “trailing clouds of glory,” says the poet Wordsworth. We enter this planet bearing traces of immortality — and we can leave the same way. Between birth and death we experience a three-stage process. In the first stage we forget where we came from. In the second stage, having forgotten, we interact as separate finite selves within the world. In the third, we re-member once again, we put ourselves back together with what we have always known.
“Unless we become as little children” — yes, unless, once achieving ego, we learn to transcend it, we will not experience God. The third cycle of Saturn is the cycle when the spirit takes hold — or it can. Old ones either reach that peace that lies beyond understanding, or they regress to a state prior to understanding — witness Alzheimer’s disease. The former is childlike, a second innocence, well earned; the latter, merely childish, senile.
To open the door to what lies beyond time is to put this life in perspective, to appreciate both its smallness and its glory.
That opening, usually, does not begin until Saturn returns to its original place at birth for the second time, somewhere between the ages of 56 and 60. Before this, we lived in time. The first cycle of Saturn in linear time, the second cycle in the time of our lives. Our lives as adults. Still linear, though we could see through it now. We knew that whatever goal we picked was our free choice — and a limitation. We knew that there was something else, something beyond our conscious plans and projects, though just what it was, we did not know.
Now, with that second cycle also completed, we have no more use for time. A certain faraway look begins to replace our former focus. We are seeing through time to eternity. We are coming to the end of our road, and as we do, we can look back and see to the beginning, and have compassion for those who still struggle, either to gain a self (the first Saturn cycle), or to show what that self can do (the second Saturn cycle).
During the third cycle, for the first time we can experience the truth of that mysterious suggestion of the Christ; we begin to live as if we are both “in the world but not of it.” Both here and not here; our bodies here, our minds elsewhere. They are tuning into the spirit. They are remembering what they have always known. They are detaching from this world, and preparing for re-entry into the next.
If, in the first cycle, we are tuned to the body and emotions, growing in mastery of our own physical vehicles for expression in the world; and if, in the second cycle, we are tuned to the mind and its conceptual extensions in the world, learning how to make our dreams come true; then in the third cycle we are moving past mind to spirit, recentering ourselves, recovering what we have always known.
In the first cycle we explore what the philosopher Wittgenstein called the “limits of our cage,” the circumference of the circle of society, what it considers real. The goal of that cycle is to internalize the circumference, to take on society’s “reality” as our own.
In the second cycle we discover the center of the circle, our own inner lives, and spend our middle years exploring the relations between center and circumference, between inner potential and its forms as they manifest in outer “reality.”
In the third cycle we discover that the center of the circle is not a point but a hole, that it leads into another dimension, infinitely large and infinitely beautiful. From now on we are capable of functioning in a way that both participates in “real world” experience and is at the same time detached from it.
The final cycle of Saturn begins in total undifferentiated unity with the world and ends in complete separation from it, “ego” on its own alone. During those first three decades we move from the enwombed security of the fetus, to what William James called the “buzzing, booming confusion” of the newborn, to all those early experiments with reality, finding out what works and what does not, to, at 30, a self set off from its world, competing with others for the world’s “goods.”
The second cycle of Saturn begins at 30 in duality and reaches, at 60, the seed of a new unity, this one more complex, more intricate, more beautiful; indeed, it is a trinity, formed of a synthesis between the self and the world and the new center we have discovered, our soul, our higher self. A Self that is timeless, immortal, untouched by daily concerns. We have made our mark. Our lives have made a difference. There is no more to do. Now we can be. And we can offer ourselves, and our understanding of time, of times’ cycles, to others. We can offer them patience, and endurance, and above all, love, compassion. We hardly have to say anything. The lines on our faces speak for us. After all the striving, all the get up and go; after all the short-range goals, the passion, the blind vision — we have finally achieved our essential humanity. We are human at last. Fully and richly individual, yet merely one among others, equal. Identical in our pretenses, our suffering, our yearning for the greater beyond.
To be old is to be at ease, synthesized, serene. At one with all of creation. Is to occupy the true spiritual center of our children’s and our grandchildren’s lives. Is to be ancient, venerated. Is to carry the memory of centuries. Is to remember, to create a legendary past, a past to build upon for the future.
I am speaking here of the ideal, remember; not of what most people do as they age, but of what we all could do, were we to more fully recognize, and then real-ize, the combined meaning of the three major phases of the human life-cycle as a whole.
Most people in our society are deadened to their real natures by the time they reach thirty. Their egos, rather than serving as membranes, permitting that process of osmosis through experience that allows growth in awareness to continue — their egos function as shells, walling off the mysterious world inside. And if few reach their 30s intact, then far fewer survive the middle years as alive, vital people. Our culture takes a heavy toll.
Our Old Ones: Elders, or “Senior Citizens”?
Contemporary American society values youth above all. Not the inner feeling of youthfulness, but the mere appearance of youth. If “over 30” is “over-the-hill,” then “over 60” is a positive embarrassment.
“I notice that people in my family are beginning to treat me differently,” said an immensely vital and powerful woman who comes to me on the eve of her 80thbirthday. “I am being subtly shut out, shunted aside. What I say is not taken seriously. It’s as if I’m invisible, not there.” As she said this, tears came to her eyes. She looked down, her shoulders drooping, withdrawing. Her vitality visibly drained away.
As I watched this a surge of energy ran through me. I was furious. Furious that this should happen to her, of all people, this way we treat the old ones among us. And I identified another emotion too, surprise. Surprise that Kathryn, this glorious woman, my mentor and model, should be succumbing to it.
“And how do you think this situation is going to change? I asked her gently, but with little sympathy.
She looked up, startled. I have caught her attention. As our eyes met, her energy returned, flooded her being. “Obviously,” she said, the familiar wry humor playing about her eyes, “it’s going to have to start with me.”
I asked Kathryn, does she remember ever seeing Marie Madding walk into a room? Her eyes lit up. “Yes,” she replied, “I do. And I remember being struck by her.” We talked about Marie, 83 years old, a much loved and revered woman in the mountain valley where I live. We called up Marie’s manner in our mind’s eye. Her aristocratic bearing, that subtle but decided air of authority. The strong, gentle, lined face. You could walk like that, I told Kathryn. You and Marie are both elders.
Kathryn’s 80th birthday threw her for a loop — momentarily. But that was not the end of it. At this writing, one year later, she tells me that she went through a “death” experience this spring that lasted for two long months. “You predicted I would go through some kind of crucifixion during March and April,” she tells me. “And believe me, I did. I confronted the Terrible Mother,” she tells me, over a long and wonderful lunch. As I sit there watching and listening to her, I marvel at the intensity, her amazing vitality and alertness. I love this woman! “I had nightmares, of spiders, and worms and snakes, all eating me. It was awful, horrible, something I cannot explain. I started expressing it, making huge ugly drawings that were dark, shadowy, black. Finally, one day I ripped up the drawings and threw them in the garbage. That was the end of it.
“This was an existential experience which, believe me, everyone my age goes through,” she concluded. “I died,” she reiterates, looking at me closely, knowing I am too young to really understand what she is talking about. “I died, and now I feel wonderful.”
Kathryn looks ten years younger than she did last year. Her transformation, at nearly 81 years old, is an awesome, continuing process. Age has not withered her, it deepens her. Kathryn functions as a true elder, occupying the deep spiritual center of her entire clan.
Kathryn is unusual. One of the few old ones among us who are taking their rightful role in life, and who are not fundamentally bothered by our society’s usual way of viewing them.
During the ‘60s and early ‘70s many minority groups began to claim their separate and independent identities and to demand their rights within the dominant culture. Blacks, women, homosexuals, other racial minorities, even old people as a class began to carve out their own niches in society. Coming from a long history of oppression, these groups gained a sense of self-worth through gathering together and recognizing common feelings, common needs.
Going under the name of “Grey Panthers,” the old people’s movement was akin to most of the civil rights movements during that time, in that the advances they sought were mainly political. I would suggest that there needs to be a next step now, a step some other minorities have already begun to take, and that is to recognize the unique contribution that old people bring to society, and to reintegrate themselves inside it as a vital and necessary part of the social fabric as a whole.
What is that unique contribution which old ones bring to society if it is not the wisdom they have gained from their own experience? And what would happen if our society actually did begin to value such wisdom? Would we not begin to see the terrible waste we have been visiting upon our planet by the massive 20thcentury shift from natural to technological values? Our old ones remember what the world was like before the automobile, the telephone, television. They remember the prairie that used to lie under what is now an eight-lane interstate highway. They knew what it was like to go visiting on Sundays, maintaining and supporting family and community bonds that came in mighty handy, especially during the Depression, and other rough times. They can recall when their grandmothers and grandfathers lived down the street from then, in dark, old, musty houses full of family treasures, their laps and ample bosoms just made for children’s short-lived tears.
They remember, our old ones remember. And we don’t really want them to remember. We prefer our cultural amnesia, wherein we don’t notice the consequences of our collective acts. Where our belief in “progress” obscures its toxic side effects. It is precisely because we have forgotten our past that we have no regard for our future.
Indian and other aboriginal cultures make important decisions according to a single criterion: act in a way that will benefit the next seven generations. In other words, do nothing that would damage the ability of your life space to sustain itself so that your children and their children’s children will be able to thrive. This way of thinking assumes that the ways things have always been done in the ancient past are probably the best ways. Aboriginal cultures assume the value of wisdom, of learning from experience, of ancient knowledge. They have no use for our “progress.”
It is not accident that in aboriginal societies, old ones are considered elders, venerated, whereas our old people are called “senior citizens,” useless, shunted asides. Were we to take seriously the old ones among us, were the old ones among us to take seriously the cycle of life they are in, we would mend that great hole in the fabric of our society, that lack of wisdom, that foolishness.
I am happy to report that my friend Joan now tells me that her mother has come into her own. She has, Joan says, discovered her new niche in society, created her own value, by serving as a hospice volunteer in the community where she lives. Joan’s mother is facing her own fear of aging head-on by holding hands with the dying.