The famously tragic figure of King Lear paints a bleak picture of old age. Retired attorney Brendan Hare confesses in the article below that he was guilty of viewing old age and the elderly in a negative light — but he came to realize the folly of that thinking as he himself hit his “early late sixties.” In fact, he came to appreciate the fullness of life waiting to embrace those in their later years.
Hare is the author of the new book, From Working to Wisdom: The Adventures and Dreams of Older Americans, an inspiring compilation of 46 short oral histories revealing diverse personal experiences and delivering valuable life lessons to help enhance the readers’ later years.
I’m no Shakespearean. Until recently, I’d only read King Lear once. This happened in college, in the late 1960s, very early one morning, hours before I was to submit an essay entitled—if I recall correctly—“King Lear and the Tragedy of Time.” There I sat, hunched over The Collected Works, squinting at its endless microscopic print, staving off sleep with cigarettes, battering the keys of my wobbly Underwood. By dawn I’d produced a few pages of what I suspect was nonsense, but which somehow sufficed for a passing mark. After that, I declared myself an economics major, quit smoking, graduated, and ran off to law school.
Then, for forty-odd years, I busied myself with family and career, and never gave the old King more than a passing thought. His story, I believed, had nothing to do with mine. If pressed, I might have said, Sure, I know that one: There’s this eighty-year-old guy, see, and he’s senile, and one day his daughters abandon him, and so he wanders around the countryside for a bit, and then he dies.
One of the great pains of aging comes when you discover how much time you wasted being wrong. One of its greatest pleasures may follow this, when you see there’s still time to change.
Of course I was wrong about Lear. More than this, I was wrong about old age. And these mistakes were rooted in the same ugly prejudice: I’m ashamed to confess that, for much of my life, I was an incorrigible ageist.
I began to realize this about two and a half years ago when, freshly retired, having entered what I defensively called my “early late sixties,” I dug up a copy of Lear and gave it another go. I was surprised to find that, as the curtain lifts, the hero is not feeble, not already half-lost to senility. Rather he is strong, blustering, full of passion and self-assurance. It’s the cruelty he suffers that speeds his decline. Two of his daughters shut him from their homes and condescend to him remorselessly. They call him an old fool and a superannuated baby, and tell him the time has come for him to “be rul’d and led” by others. Lear experiences all this as a trauma. He exclaims, “grief hath craz’d my wits,” and begins to doubt his sanity, wondering aloud, who “can tell me who I am?” Before long, he seems to adopt his daughters’ view, calling himself “wretched,” nothing more than a “poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.”
Amid its spectacular poetry and profound truth, King Lear offers something more basic: a rough metaphor for how society often mistreats the elderly. As I write this, ten thousand Americans are retiring each day. None of them, one prays, will suffer the type of extravagant cruelty inflicted by Lear’s daughters. The evils most commonly faced by seniors are subtler and more diffuse, but pernicious nonetheless. They comprise systematic neglect, segregation, isolation, and bigotry, and might be conveniently grouped under the banner of “ageism.”
Ageism stands as one of the last widely acceptable social prejudices, and is rampant even among the otherwise conscientious. When you watch for it, you find it everywhere: entertainment, government, advertising, commerce. Have a look at the birthday cards on offer at your neighborhood pharmacy. They supply a catalogue of ugly stereotypes about the old. Scanning them, you’d think no one has anything to look forward to past fifty but a painful, pathetic, protracted shriveling of body and mind.
Ageism is harmful because, like other forms of prejudice, it prevents people from being treated fairly. It affronts their humanity and attempts to diminish them, to disregard their character, to reduce the vast complexity of each person to a thing, a cheap, ready-made, less-than-human “type.” As Lear illustrates, the consequences of such prejudice can prove devastating. It may “craze the wits,” and trick us into believing that we are, merely because of our age, wretched and despised. Studies have suggested that age discrimination may cause seniors to suffer higher rates of physical and mental illness. One study reported that seniors who viewed old age in negative terms faced life expectancies that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than their peers.
My generation can proudly reflect on the many ways in which, together, we helped to shape youth culture, sex, music, politics, and civil rights. Much of this owes to the extraordinary demographic coincidence of our births: there are, quite simply, a lot of us. And in our numbers there is great power and energy. The buzz phrases used to label our cohort reflect this: We came into the world in a “baby boom”; we’ll depart it in a “silver tsunami.” Surely it is our responsibility to harness our collective might once more, and to rally against ageism with the same fervor we exercised in our youth. Stamping out age discrimination would stand as a worthy final achievement—one more generational contribution to what George Eliot called the “growing good of the world.”
And as we fight against ageism in society, we must also guard against it in ourselves. On this front, Lear is also instructive. It reminds us that old age need not be, as the King believes at the start of the drama, a long “crawl toward death.” Instead, it can be an adventure, an opportunity to enlarge our empathy and wisdom. As Lear draws nearer to death, he grows larger in spirit. “The great rage” that marred his mature years recedes, and he turns “brave” and “jovial,” wishing only to “live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies.” Lear is famously difficult, bleak, brutal, and sad. In spite of this—perhaps because of the tremendous intensity of language and character on display—it is never depressing, never foreclosed to hope. Near the end of the play, another old man, the Duke of Gloucester, having been betrayed, assaulted, blinded, and cast out, breaks down and wishes to die. His devoted son sees him wallowing on the ground and speaks a simple phrase, one I hope to never forget, no matter what circumstances old age might impose: snap out of it, he says, “Thy life is a miracle.”
Brendan Hare is a retired attorney and the author of From Working to Wisdom: The Adventures and Dreams of Older Americans, available at Amazon. For more info, visit fromworkingtowisdom.com