Gerontocracy: Stepping Aside, Intergenerational Transmission, Mindfulness

The other morning, I learned a new word. I was elbow-deep in bagel dough in the wee hours. Admittedly I love those awesomely silent insomniac hours when everyone in their right mind is asleep. I do end up sleep-deprived, which I constantly struggle to regulate. But the night sky through our kitchen skylight and the gentle quiet is blessedly peaceful, and some of my most creative moments come out of the dark embrace of the night. And some of the best public radio programs aired at those times. This time, I caught an interview with Roxanne Gay.

Gay is a most exquisite writer. I have only read one of her books, but I aspire to get to the others. The one I did read is called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper  2017) where she tells the story of being gang raped as an adolescent, and then proceeding into wildly disordered eating that gradually rocketed to a weight of over 500 pounds (36 stone.) She describes her life as a traumatized, sexually non-conforming, of color woman, navigating a fat-phobic world of that size. It is brilliant writing. The new word I learned from her on this particular morning, was “gerontocracy.” The Oxford definition is “a state, society, or group governed by old people.” Which of course got me thinking.

Only weeks ago, a California senator, Dianne Feinstein, died at age 90. She was the oldest ever sitting US senator. But there was controversy about her staying in office as long as she did, as many believed she was failing in various ways. I did not get involved in that argument, because I always had a special fondness for Dianne. She was the unlucky individual who discovered the freshly-murdered body of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in San Francisco, as well as the then mayor, George Moscone. She handled that trauma with such grace and guts, as she also did, in taking over the helm of SF as mayor for a number of years. Dianne had a long wick with me. 

Similarly, another much highly esteemed older woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, beloved US Supreme Court Justice, stayed seated too long. So, as I thought about gerontocracy, as well as the fact that most of the candidates in the upcoming US presidential and other important elections are getting up there. But hey, so is Mick Jagger. And I’m not 19 anymore either. What does it mean?

I often wonder, how does one know when it is time to step aside and make way for a new generation? Surely it is a moment of grief, a process of loss to face that one’s star is beginning to set. I always admire athletes who have the humility and the realism to recognize that their moment has passed. Local football legend Jerry Rice, one of my iconic heroes (although I am certainly no fan of his sport,) knew he did not want to end his brilliant career on the bench. Joan Baez could hear and feel when her voice and throat were getting scratchy, and when maybe it was time to express her creativity through paint and prose. Many rock groups have repeatedly announced their “farewell” tours, only to be followed by a comeback or perhaps sheepish re-incarnation of some kind. I know in my world, although I am not quite a veteran, I am now in the perhaps in-between category of not quite veteran, but perhaps seasoned practitioner, who has something to teach and pass on, but has a task to encourage and help launch the next wave of trauma study and practice. And admittedly I am happy and excited to see fresh young minds brimming with curiosity, stepping up to the fore.

Too there is something perhaps anachronistic, not to mention even stingy about clinging to one’s old stature even when it is clearly on the decline, perhaps denial or refusal to see, fear of change, inability to face the inevitability of loss, mortality? In her provocative book Elderhood, gerontologist Louise Aaronson describes the neglect of the whole category of ageing, certainly in the North American healthcare system, and in our culture. She comments that we acknowledge two stages of life: childhood and adulthood. However now, at least in many first-world countries, adulthood might span 60-80 years or more.  We warehouse the elderly, try to forget about them and forget that it will happen to us. Another whole population of neglect whose existence is somehow ignored, overlooked, forgotten. These years are certainly not monochromatic, not uniform to be able to generalize about developmentally, they are perhaps as diverse as any variations of development and growing up. 

It was a short hop from this to another tributary of thought: what does all this have to do with intergenerational transmission in general, and specifically the intergenerational transmission of trauma and neglect, which is probably almost always on my mind.

As we know the nature of unresolved trauma is to re-enact it. Unwittingly through behavior and symptoms we might continue and repeat abhorrent patterns, only to realize with horror,  ”-oh my god! I am turning into my mother!”  or talking to myself as she talked to me. And what does it mean to have a government by the aged? Will we be doomed to keep on recycling the same “nasty, brutish and short” stories? How can we do better?

I am all for reverence, honor and value for the sage wisdom of age and experience. Staying mindful to appreciate, remember and dignify history and historical figures across diverse spectrums, including those overlooked, mistreated or forgotten by history only makes sense to me. Staying cognizant and awake, resisting the urge to avoid or flee questions of mortality- our own and that of those we love, takes courage, awareness and humility, which are in fact the opposite of neglect. 

Neglect is generally, blind oblivion, failure of consciousness. It is generally the exception that it be purposeful and intentional with-holding of attention, consideration or thought. Staying mindful, awake, conscious and committed to healing both the injuries and mistakes is probably our best insurance against the blind and static doom to repeat them. That is my best hope.

So on an always related theme, how do we know when the cheese is ready?  When it has aged enough and is at its best? Good question! Sometimes the recipe gives us the ballpark, or a range of 4-8 months. Sometimes the aroma rising through the wax is too seductive to wait any longer, or there is nothing else even close.  I used to think more was always better, about everything really. I strive to overcome that, in the probably lifelong quest for regulation! There is no simple formula. Perhaps the best recipe for living is to honor and respect ancestry, learn from experience, grow with the times, and stay mindful.

Today’s song:


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