On Turning 51, Optimistically
So this month I turn 51. (I thought it was 50, but my helpful sisters reminded me…so I’m sending the newsletter I would have sent last year. And, YES, I do regularly forget how old I am. Now back to our regularly scheduled newsletter.) The wonderful thing is, I’m not depressed at all. Sure, the ongoing process of physical decrepitude is a bummer, but I’m in a thousand times better place than I was back in my, say, 20s. I am more able to both work and love, which Freud called the “cornerstones of our humanness.” I’m also surrounded by amazing people.
A couple of months back, I attended a Women’s Summit for the Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement, one of the key liberation movements of our age. FLOSS has brought us the GNU/Linux operating system, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, the anti-DRM campaign, and the free culture movement, and is generally going like gangbusters. (It doesn’t hurt when your opposition behaves stupidly, as Amazon did when it reached across the Internet with evil DRM fingers and erased copies of, of all novels, 1984 from people’s Kindles.)
There were ten women present, all but me in their twenties or early thirties. That didn’t make me feel old; it made me feel great! Great to be in the midst of so much energy and ideas and commitment; and great to know that my own ideas – some of which took me decades to develop – were useful and appreciated. I felt wise, which is really a great compensation for a bit of physical decay.
I also think of a conversation I had a year ago with Kim, an animal activist in suburban Chicago. A devoted animal lover, she looks out for abused and neglected animals in her community, and her nightly ritual includes laying out food for the various neighborhood critters, including feral cats and skunks. We talked about how, although it’s wonderful to help animals, it’s painful to witness their suffering, and also painful to be viewed as eccentric by one’s neighbors.
This pain – the pain of witnessing, and of isolation/ alienation – is almost inevitable for activists, artists and others trying to lead authentic lives. There is, however, one huge compensation: I have never heard an activist complain about a lack of meaning in his or her life. Although we share the ordinary human inheritance of loss and grief, as well as, often, choosing to take on the losses and griefs of others, we know our lives have meaning.
Activists and artists also have the compensation of being part of wonderful communities. Sure, there are plenty of dysfunctional communities out there, and you should avoid them like the plague. But the healthy ones are fabulous, and filled with people with ideas, energy, optimism and kindness. My activist, artist and other friends – as well as my fact-finding sisters – are the main reason I am aging with happiness, hope and joy.
Anyway, to be honest, it also took a lot of therapy to get me to this point, and so I always urge everyone to get therapy. You’ve also got to have a learning and growth orientation. Years ago, I was watching the show Survivor, and there was a player who, although in his 60s, was really a jerk (or, more accurately, closed-minded and socially obtuse), and I realized that, while being a jerk is bad enough when you’re young, it’s a disaster when you’re older. As you age, everyone around you tends to gain wisdom, and if you yourself don’t, you slip further and further behind. And while I wouldn’t say that life’s challenges inevitably get harder as you get older – I don’t think mine have, and, as I said, I’m happier now than at 20 – they often do. They also tend to pile up, and you really want to learn to cope with them as quickly and efficaciously as possible, so you can get back to the more gratifying stuff.
My parents (Depression kids and addicts) were terrible role models for aging, and many other things. They were miserable individually and as a couple, and – typical for troubled families – we didn’t socialize much, so there was really a dearth of positive role models in my life. Maybe that’s why I’ve always sought out older people who could fill that role. I think of my vivacious, relentlessly-golden-coiffed Great Aunt Blanche who, although her own life was lived conventionally, would crow, “That’s the Goldsmith in you!” whenever I did or said anything bold. (Goldsmith was my mom’s maiden name.) Or my friend Lisa’s parents, who were kind and smart and cosmopolitan and welcoming and generous to all. I met them just after graduating college, and watching the way they treated themselves and others was a revelation.
My foster kids from Sudan inform me that, in their culture, one benefit of growing old is that you can beat everyone younger. I must confess that, even though I’m a vegan and therefore have an ethical commitment to nonviolence, the idea has a certain appeal. Our culture seems to do the opposite: beat up on the aged – but I’m not too worried about that. Although I’ve also been informed by reliable sources that, “Seventy is very different from fifty,” I trust in activism and activist communities to help me maintain my strength, optimism and ability to cope.
One of the most valuable things I think I do for younger activists is reflect for them how well activism works, since it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re in the thick of things. I don’t want to diminish the suffering that America, in the decline of empire, is inflicting both at home and throughout the world, but there is no doubt that our society has progressed mightily in fifty years. I am also tremendously optimistic about the next fifty, and, in particular, about the democratizing power of the Internet and other digital technologies. It’s a clichÃ© to say that these technologies are ushering in a second renaissance, but it’s also absolutely true. Moreover, this renaissance is destined to be far better – far wider ranging geographically, demographically and culturally, and far more inclusive of both human and nonhuman beings, and the entire planet – than the first one. (Which is why free software/free culture are so important: they are among the main forces working to ensure the maximum impact of that Renaissance.)
I’m going do my best to be around to witness it all!