As we have discussed here many times, most western democracies are profoundly ageist cultures.
It starts in the cradle, this antipathy toward the no longer young and from there, the number of ways that have been invented to marginalize people older than 50 – even, often, older than 40 – is boundless.
Just last evening, in an otherwise excellent novel I'm reading, this description of a newly introduced character appeared: “She was a woman of about 60 who in her younger years must have been a beauty.” There had been a similar sentence 50 or 60 pages earlier about another woman.
Are you saying that now she's a hag? I thought. It is the most common dismissal of women (and, occasionally, men), that if they are old – calculated by young people's standards – they are ugly.
Of course, the ramifications of such judgments are more serious than simple scorn: people are fired from jobs due to false stereotypes of older adults, not hired in the first place, subject to sub-par healthcare and generally discouraged from participating in public life.
But that's a story for another day. What I want to note today is that even while lamenting all that, we who are old generally abide with ourselves and our kind quite well and actually, life does get better.
These days, at age 77, I wake most mornings with a smile, eager to get on with whatever I have or have not planned for the day. That daily appetite is new and undoubtedly some of it is a consequence of surviving, so far, pancreatic cancer and being more fully aware than at any time in my life how precious is each new day.
But it's not all as a result of cancer. A lot, maybe the largest part, is having been surprised at some of the advantages of advanced age and the real changes I've experienced in my own attitudes and behavior.
Acceptance of what is, to which I have paid lip service for too long, is how, at last, I live mostly. I suspect it may arrive after decades of various levels of catastrophe that were, to my astonishment when they happened, survivable. Now I don't panic anymore when things go wrong.
This has brought better perspective, an increased ability to weigh events on more reasonable scales. Most occurrences that once fell into my disaster column are not - at least in the long run. Just cleaning up the spilt milk and getting on with living is so much easier than the “oh-my-god” anxieties and fears of the past.
And patience. It doesn't need to be today anymore. Although I will admit to being puzzled that at a time in life when what time I have left is demonstrably shorter, I am quite happy to put off all kinds of things – interesting as well as tedious - until tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next. I have no idea why it should be that way; it is a mystery.
And now, even in this culture that to a large degree despises people of old age, I welcome birthdays; I like ticking off the years as they go by. In fact, the last birthday that I feared was 40.
I spent my entire 39th year boring every person I knew with lamentations over the impending doom, as I saw it, of turning 40. Looking back at my incessant wailing, I'm surprised any friendships from that year survived.
When the dread day arrived, I found on my desk at work that morning a classic, long white box in which red roses are usually delivered. But my birthday is in April, springtime, and the man I was then dating was much more inventive than that.
Inside were 40 (I counted them) gorgeous, fresh tulips and as lovely as they were, it was the card that made my day: “See how beautiful 40 can be.” (The seventh photograph from the left in the banner at the top of this page was taken on the evening of that day.)
It was still another three decades or so before I began to make real peace with growing old but none of the succeeding birthdays were as fraught as 40. I was learning acceptance – it just took me a long, long time to get there.
Have you had a really difficult birthday?