Friday, March 17, 2006

The curse of the wise old man...

There are few archetypes stronger than that of the wise old man.
Age and wisdom go together like apes and Darwin.

But is it really fair of us to expect our elders to sport perfect white manes and be spouting sage words at all hours of the day? Fair or not, many old people will play right into this expectation, feeling the pressure to have all their years add up to something that still has value and meaning in society. You may recall that I was impressed with Robert Altman's Oscar speech. But my friend Jonathan (who was not terribly impressed) was quick to point out, "You have to remember he's had 80 years to come up with something vaguely interesting to say."

My wise old dad sent me an article on this topic from one of the old folks magazines that come in the mail (where does this great article-clipping habit come from? Is it in the parenthood DNA?). It goes:

"Believing you have to be wise all the time is a terrible burden. Wisdom comes from peculiarity, and not from conformity or role-playing. The old will inspire others because of their unique experience, not because they say wise things.... We're taught in this culture to link aging with dying, and to interpret the last part of life in a morbid way. But we forget that aging may be doing something for us rather than to us. These changes help build character, which comes from the Greek word for 'etched.'... The restrictions of old age may actually be opportunities for more reflection, more understanding, more compassion, and more contrition, which used to be a very important thing. All of these changes should allow us to have a society of elders who have character, not a society of elders who are joggers."

Do you recall what Anna Magnani, the great Italian actress, said to her makeup man? "Don't take out a single line on my face. I paid for each one!"


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