The other day I went into Barnes & Noble to noodle around the Aging section. (Yes, there is one, and its entire contents fall neatly into two categories: How to Care for Your Aging Parents and How to Stay Young Forever.) I didn’t escape empty-handed, though, because Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America caught my eye on the way out.
Both journalist and activist, Ehrenreich is one of my heroes. As someone who hails from a long line of irritable depressives, I had no trouble getting behind her basic premise: that positive thinking has become a mass delusion that’s blinded Americans to real threats to our individual and collective well-being. Defining positive thinking as both an ideology and a practical pursuit, she points out its “symbiotic relationship” with capitalism. “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimist outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure,” she writes. In other words, if you’re poor or you can’t find a new job or you let cancer do you in, it’s your fault, a failure of attitude and will – not that of a heartless market economy and its greedy minions.
I found myself a little uneasy as I chomped though Bright-Sided, though. After all, haven’t I been touting the value of optimism in our outlook towards old age? Yes, but in an effort to stake out the middle ground: to keep fear and prejudice from blinding us to all the facts at hand. Unwarranted optimism and negativism are opposite sides of the same coin, manifestations of willful blindness. The remedy is the same: information, data, science. In Ehrenreich’s words, “The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are,’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity — the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death.” Denial serves a purpose, but it’s not an end in itself. Exercise and diet keep us healthier longer, but that’s all they can do.
What about Ehrenreich’s charge that the solution lies in getting “outside of ourselves?” Haven’t I been pitching the imperative of self-scrutiny in order to perceive the self-loathing in which ageism takes root? Yes, but as a turning point, not as an end in itself. Because it’s not until we acknowledge that internalized ageism that we start to notice ageist attitudes around us, as well as our complicity in sustaining them. If we’re paddling frenetically against the inexorable current, we can’t take in the view, whether it’s the Grand Canyon or Newtown Creek (my local waterway-cum-superfund-site). We’re stuck shopping for regimens on that Barnes & Noble shelf, and avoiding older people lest they “bring us down.” (Steering clear of “negative” situations or associations is a staple of happiness-promotion literature, Ehrenreich points out, adding helpfully that “It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the colicky infant or the sullen teenager.”)
We Americans pride ourselves on being optimistic; it’s deeply bound up in our “can-do” self-image. We’re wedded to myth that hard work and a positive attitude will deliver what each of us deserves: promotion, McMansion, eternal love. (Why on earth are we still taking marching orders from Horatio Alger, formula fictioneer of the Gilded Age?) As Ehrenreich writes, “We’ve gone so far down this yellow brick road that ‘positive’ seems to us not only normal but normative — the way you should be.” Perhaps this learned conviction — that it’s never OK to be unhappy — is part of what fuels our obsession with youthfulness, another very American trait. We have no psychic space in which to mourn the fact that we’re never going to play the Fillmore or write that screenplay. If the prospect of the years ahead unnerves — if we’re saddened by the loss of a mentor, or bummed because Mom can’t follow the dinner table conversation any more, or worried about ending up in the poorhouse — something must be wrong with us.
And as long as the fault lies within, there’s no point in addressing, or even identifying, any of the larger factors that make it hard for anyone to navigate these transitions. (Subprime mortgages, anyone? Consumer culture? Chickenshit politicians?) Instead of fighting for a place on stage, we hand over the mike to the whippersnapper stepping onto the podium. We cave numbly to the established order (established since the 1820s, that is). “The real conservatism of positive psychology lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power,” Ehrenreich observes trenchantly. There’s an interesting analogy here with the age-denial movement. Its conservatism lies in its attachment to the status quo ante: the delusion that we can hold onto who we once were instead of inhabiting the present and actively shaping our futures. It is reactionary.
“The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all,” asks Ehrenreich. “Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?” I think the work starts at home, with pulling our heads out of the sand and considering the facts: there are as many ways of getting to 90 as there were of getting to 60. The physical enemies are dementia, which cannot be remediated, and frailty, which can. Steady decline is not the norm. Most of the old old are happy to be alive and then some. In other words, the experience of growing old is far more nuanced and diverse than the standard grim scenario admits. Allowing for a range of scenarios changes the way we feel about the whole scary business. Just as consciousness-raising did in the ‘60s, it liberates us to tackle the “real work” to which Ehrenreich refers: reforming the systems that enforce the growing divide between the haves and have-nots — among whom the very young and very old are disproportionately represented.