Every year my mom’s brother-in-law Earl packed up what he needed for a few days out in the Oregon woods and hunted elk. The meat fed his family of six throughout the year and he looked forward to his solitary annual hunt; he was a country boy, born and bred. My parents admired Earl in many ways, not the least of which was his resolve to give up hunting on his fiftieth birthday. He said he’d seen too many old hunters lose their mental acuity and quick reflexes, endangering those around them. And yet…when he turned 50 himself, he just couldn’t let it go.
I thought of Uncle Earl this week as news photos surfaced of Dianne Feinstein, at 87 the oldest sitting member of the U.S. Senate, looking a little blank as she sat in capitol hearing rooms where she has served honorably for nearly three decades. The text accompanying those photos describe recent instances where Feinstein repeated things she had just heard or forgot things she had just read. Then there was the televised Senator Lindsay Graham hug after the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings, an undignified and perhaps sentimental gesture that would have appalled her younger self.
Though it’s heresy these days to diss the near-sainted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died this year at the same age Feinstein is now, Ginsburg shared Feinstein’s all-too-human affliction. She reportedly told her granddaughter on her deathbed that she hoped her replacement on the high court would not be confirmed while Trump was still president. Yet…when then-President Barack Obama reportedly urged her to retire early in his second term when it could have made a difference, she balked and kept right on trucking. She just couldn’t let it go, either.
Being human in all its imperfections, we all to some degree resist the evidence that the once-reliable acuity of our youth is on the wane. To accept our encroaching infirmities is, after all, to admit that we’re drawing closer to our inevitable deaths. We may intellectually accept this sobering reality, just like Uncle Earl did, and even counter it by waxing poetic on the value of old age’s perspective and presumed wisdom. But who among us wouldn’t trade our shambling gaits, our failing eye sight and hearing, our creaky bones, our aches and pains and other physical ailments, for the clear-eyed sharpness and endless physical vigor of our youth? We might not miss youth’s own brand of vexing problems, but we’d sure all like to look and feel like we did back then.
Staving off the signs of old age is especially sought in the U.S., where the desirability of material wealth and its physical trappings is everywhere on display. You can pretty much tell the ages of a TV show’s intended audience by the commercials run in the show’s time slot. Hip programs feature ads with smiling, laughing, affluent-looking young people in the bloom of youth and at the peak of their physical powers as they dance, buy expensive cars, and toast one another in upscale restaurants. Weary-looking oldsters take A1c-lowering drugs, are despondent because they can’t play with their grandkids, and rush off to restrooms in a panic of sudden gastric distress. We all know, of course, that these messages are designed to get us to buy stuff. But they also reflect societal values and our most basic fears.
Who doesn’t appreciate the physical beauty of youth? Nobody I know. But appreciating youth in all its transitory glory is very different from trying to hold onto it, though the United States $93.5 billion beauty industry, with all its smoke and mirrors, works hard to convince us otherwise. Ditto for the health industry (Turn back the clock with this supplement! Feel young again!) In a weird way looking young and vigorous has assumed a kind of moral superiority over those choosing to make peace with the clock and age gracefully. .
Nearly all of us cling to things that are important to our essential sense of ourselves as we grow old. For some it’s physical appearance, for others it’s power. Politics is rife with high-profile examples of the latter. Perhaps one of its best-known examples is the former Republican U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, the oldest senator in U.S. history, who had to be led around the capitol by his staff as he absent-mindedly bumbled through his mid-90s. Corporate America tolerates no such signs of age-related weakness, of course, and a few even have mandatory retirement ages. One example from my past life as a corporate communications manager was particularly poignant. The CEO fired one of his senior VPs, who despite being summarily axed after 30 years on the job kept showing up at work every day. Frustrated, the CEO ordered the VP’s secretary to tell her boss to quit coming to work. I will respect her to the end of my days for looking the CEO in the eye and saying, “You fired him. You tell him to stop coming to work.” That VP just couldn’t bring himself to let go of the job that had so defined him for nearly all of his adult life. He didn’t know what else to do.
Since Donald Trump’s refusal to let go of the presidency and its power borders on the pathological and edges even toward the frightening prospect of anarchy and violence, his refusal to peacefully relinquish the presidency is not included in this essay. This is about how each of us, as ordinary people, either consciously or unconsciously clings to aspects of our younger selves, even as advancing age demands their graceful exit. It’s about letting go of the temporal vanities that have defined our younger selves. Most of these are harmless and confined to our internal selves, Still, with all the human frailties that hobble us, we can still with a clear eye resist the temptation and turn the critical, rational gaze we reserve for others back on ourselves when we find ourselves clinging to our long-past youthful selves.