A good friend passed on a DVD of my This Chair Rocks talk to a filmmaker acquaintance, who had a serious critique. She found the talk compelling and called me “a smart and wise cheerleader for this next passage,” but continued, “What I felt missing in her talk was death. She moved quickly over it, saying that her big surprise was how little older folks feared death. I think she is wrong, but she has been immersed in this research far longer than I have. I think we [all] fear death; it is the great unanswered question. We create immortality narratives to console us, not just about an afterlife, but living through legacy, art, family etc. Some of our stories work, others do not.”
Chewing on this response made me sharpen my thinking; always welcome. I thought back to the beginning of this project, when it seemed obvious that fear of dying was foundational; that it is the structure upon which fear of aging—manifested as internalized ageism—rests. Indeed, as the filmmaker writes, “fear of death is the great unanswered question.” It’s why we have religion, and ritual, and much great music and literature, etc. Fear of dying is human, and every society and individual struggles to come to terms with it.
Fear of aging, however, is cultural. Many societies venerate their older members (though globalized capitalism is chipping away at their ranks), and “old people are a burden” rhetoric cranks up when times are hard and wanes as economies improve. Aging is difficult. The passage is indeed difficult; life is more hard than easy. But most Americans have no sense of how the culture in which we age can improve or degrade the experience. That shift in consciousness is what I’m trying to provoke, because it makes way for more accurate and positive narratives.
I’m no optimist; I’m a realist. I didn’t believe that fear of death diminished with age until I learned why. I wonder whether the filmmaker will come around to this way of thinking. I’m glad that I have.