Once, when I was visiting my daughter in Portland, Oregon, I boarded a street car on my way the Pearl District to visit an art gallery where I’d also planned to meet a friend. Anxious about arriving on time, I took a seat but forgot to purchase the ticket required for the 20 minute ride downtown.
Portland maintains an honor system for public transportation. Passengers are expected to purchase tickets, but monitors only randomly collect them. As it happened, when we reached the next stop, an attendant wearing an official badge hanging loosely around his neck stepped onto the car along with several new passengers.
When I noticed he was collecting tickets, my thoughts flashed to Berlin where a few years earlier I’d been “arrested” on the subway for having no ticket, removed from the train, and fined 100 Euros. That time, it wasn’t that I’d been distracted, but that I simply couldn’t figure out how to follow the German instructions on the ticket vending machine. Defending my ignorance as an American to the uniformed officer did not serve me well.
But in Portland, when the monitor approached me and asked for my ticket, I told him I had simply forgotten.
“You’ll have to go to the rear of the car and purchase one from the ticket machine,” he said.
As I stood up to follow his instructions, he looked over at me again. Perhaps it was the stiffness of my movements due to a net of arthritis that captured his gaze.
“How old are you?” he kindly asked.
“I just turned 65,” I said.
“Ah, my apology sir. I didn’t realize you were an Honored Citizen. You can ride for free.”
The words “Honored Citizen” rang in my ears. Not “Senior Citizen,” as I had often been called, but Honored Citizen, a new definition of age that glorified my years.
The encounter got me thinking got about what age means — how much society dictates our perception of age and yet, how each of us still experiences age with such vast differences.
Age, in the western conception, is defined as a period of human life, measured by years since birth, usually marked by a certain stage or degree of mental or physical development and involving legal responsibility. Like the concept of time, age is a system of man-made chronology that allows us to anchor ourselves in a shared reality. We all agree on what constitutes an hour or a stage of development: youth, adolescence, maturity, old age.
But not everyone thinks of age the same way. For some scientists and eastern philosophers, age doesn’t begin at the time of birth. We are all made up of the same atoms that formed shortly after the cosmological big-bang. Each one of us has a history that began millennia ago. Essentially, we are of immeasurable age. Similarly, for Buddhists, age is not valued in numbers. Our living age is viewed within the context of our connection to all things.
Age reflects a complex dynamic between our physical, psychological, and spiritual experiences enfolded within our perception of them.
Thus, our “true age” is defined by the interaction of mind, body, and soul within the context of the history we are born into and live through. From this point of view, every clocked hour or stage of life is uniquely experienced and perceived through each of our individual filters. How I experience my age (as I turn 68 this month), has little in common with my next-door neighbor of the same age or with anyone else for that matter.
In a retreat I attended, the great Buddhist priest and poet Thich Nhat Hanh held an ordinary piece of paper in the air and set it on fire with a match. As the paper fell to the floor in flames, he said, “The substance of this paper has turned to ash, but the smoke from its burning has filled your lungs and become part of you.” He then slowly traced back the history of the paper to all the people involved in producing it, from those who planted the seeds of the tree from which it came, to the workers who lumbered it and merchants who sold it. He was vividly demonstrating the “interconnectedness” of all things as well as the idea of foreverness. From this perspective, age is “empty” of any conventional meaning.
This “holistic” vision of age is not widely accepted in the West. In our effort to make rational sense of age, we reject the concept of it as fluid and fragmented. Instead we bundle age into developmental stages with a specific set of expectations that define and also prescribe how we should act and feel. Central to each stage is age appropriate behavior — youth is full of promise, maturity is defined by responsibility, old age is a time of winding down, loss, and reconciliation. We measure our “adjustment” to life against this map of “normal” behaviors. The refrain “Act your age!” echoes through the decades, reminding us of each stage’s ‘theme’ like the chorus of a song.
These themes become the myths upon which Ageism is built. When others in our group don’t conform to age-appropriate expectations, they are criticized and marginalized:
“Those clothes are too tight for a man his age;”
“She dresses like an old maid.”
And in a fiercely capitalist society that encourages competition at all levels, Ageism stems from intergenerational tensions over power and authority, a constant jockeying for economic and social dominion:
“What do young people know about life?”
“Those old folks better make way for younger people with fresher ideas.”
Like race and gender, we internalize these cultural myths about age, constantly struggling against stereotypes in order to experience each person we encounter as a unique individual.
Perhaps my most unusual encounter with Ageism happened slightly more than a year ago.
For months, I had noticed a handsome younger man, whom I assumed to be about 25, coming in and out of the building in West Chelsea where I live. He stood about six feet tall, dressed fashionably, and moved with the poise and grace of a ballet dancer. Every now and then we would catch each other’s gaze and politely smile. As chance had it, one evening as I entered the elevator, he was inside holding a bottle of wine and a glass. I had a martini in my hand. We smiled in recognizing our shared idea. We were each heading to the roof deck to take in the view and enjoy the warm summer breeze. To my surprise, when we reached the roof, he asked me to join him.
Sitting at a table overlooking the Hudson River, he told me he had come to the US from Shanghai to study journalism and now worked as a videographer for a magazine. The conversation drifted comfortably on until the sunset. When I asked him if he would like to continue talking in my apartment, he readily agreed.
In my living room, he poured more wine for himself and I mixed a second martini. The conversation turned to politics in China, and soon to life as a gay man. We exchanged experiences without shyness. As the evening wore on, the conversation grew more personal and an air of intimacy developed between us; what I presumed to be a sexual interest. He told me he had a long-term partner in China, an “older gentleman,” but they had agreed to having other sexual encounters while they were apart. Now, I felt truly excited. I took the leap and asked him directly if he was attracted to me.
He paused, then looked directly at me as if he were disrobing me. Then came the words I never expected to hear from anyone:
“I don’t think you’re old enough for me. You’re a little too well-preserved. I like men with a bit of a stomach and a lot more wrinkles. You look too young.”
I was tempted to seduce him by showing him my wrinkled knees, but I put the situation to rest instead.
The truth is that even our body doesn’t age uniformly. A single body has many ages. We may feel old in one part of our body and young in another; our legs may have the strength and power of a much younger runner, but our hair may be as white as Methuselah’s. We might lose an erection or never have one, but possess near x-ray vision. Similarly, our brain may not be the same age as our mind. We may be wizened by life experience, but can no longer remember the details of the events that got us here.
Personally, I am “age-discordant” (a term likely to become a psychiatric diagnosis in the next DSM). I’m not driven to achieve a secure retirement, but instead by perpetual possibilities. I’m regularly struck by the kindling forces of sex, seeking deep and intimate encounters even in casual sex. If sex is a window into our deepest psyche, then sex in older age for me has only served to refine my self-knowledge. During the solitude of each morning, I meditate with my dog Max beside me. I ask myself how I can make the day meaningful and satisfying, which doesn’t stop me from sometimes wearing skinny jeans with rolled up cuffs and sneakers without socks.
As for coupling, I believe that “true age,” not “chronological age,” matters most. Successful relationships occur when partners share common ground, not necessarily parity in chronological age, finances or social status, but rather self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and independence. Intergenerational relationships are as viable as any when the partners’ “true ages” are in sync. I may have less in common with older men and women who conform to their age group than I do with some Millennials. The qualities that personally attract me, especially a sense of passion and excitement about life, work, and sex, are not age-related. In fact, I have found such parity with friends, romantic partners, and sexual partners of every age.
Here’s what one gay man said in support of his 10-year relationship with a much younger partner:
“We have plenty of cultural references in common, plenty that we don’t share. One of the best upsides is that we don’t compete with each other the way age-matched couples tend to compete. Neither of us is the jealous type, and the experience and sense of security that I bring to the relationship avoids a whole other set of problems aged-matched couples can face. We’ve been fortunate to have been spared the financial struggling that often besets young couples and the enormous stress that that can put on a relationship.”
And a younger, non-gay woman commenting on her older husband, said:
“My spouse is older and I don’t love him for any of the reasons people joke about. I love him because he is smart, funny, caring, a good-hearted man, with a lot of fine qualities. I didn’t go out in search of a daddy. I was just looking for a person to share my life with.”
Of course, there are obstacles to age-different relationships, no bigger or less than the complexities that make up any relationship. Most grow from the misunderstanding and stereotypes of age on the part of family and friends and from the lack of community support. Ageism riddles everybody’s thinking. The “Predator” myth leads to perpetuating unnecessary social boundaries, such as the taboo of intergenerational relationships, effectively denying our young people the mentorship and support possible in this type of romantic relationship from those who have more life experience. Similarly, it’s not unusual to see dating apps with profiles that say, “No one over 30,” or “Around my age only!”
Every night when I stand in front of the mirror, readying myself for bed, there is a moment when, for a few moments, I look at my image staring back at me. I take a deep breath and sing, “You make me feel so young. You make me feel there are songs to be sung… bells to be rung…”
What do you believe is your “true-age”?