Theresa Reid, PhD is Executive Producer and Host of the interview series, “Aging for Life.”
I’ve been heavily involved in the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement in the United States for a few years. Recently, other local group leaders and I were gathered in my living room for our usual monthly meeting. We range in age from early thirties to mid-seventies. All of these leaders are committed activists; the older among us have been fighting the good fight for social justice since the 1960s. We’ve been there. And back.
This particular week, we’d invited an 18-year-old to meet with us. She and her friends had launched an impressive local youth initiative that concerned itself with GVP, racism, police brutality, and other pressing social ills. We wanted to hear from her about coordinating efforts on the GVP front. We wanted to be supportive without seeming to attempt to take over.
Well, but – are you woke?
She looked a little uneasy for a while, and was noncommittal, then blurted, “Well, some of the people–not me, but some others—wonder if you guys are woke enough. You know what I mean?”
It would’ve been a stitch to be a fly on the wall in the room right then, to observe the body language of all of us “elders” during our shocked silence: collective leaning back, widened eyes, suppressed laughter, disbelieving glances at each other.
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Honey, we were woke before you were born!” I think my friend Deborah was the first to speak. “You know,” she said, “some of us have been fighting for social justice for 40 years. Some even longer than that.” After this admirable young person had left, we all had a good laugh.
But activists of the 1960’s were young – not like you
But I kept pondering the disconnect between her evident perception of us and the homage paid on her group’s website to the student activists of the ‘60s. “We stand on these giants’ shoulders,” the website said.
But when she looked at us living, breathing people, she didn’t see the courageous student activists we’d been—those “giants”; she saw parents and grandparents who might represent many good things, but look nothing like the young student activists in her head—the student activists who looked like her and her friends, though in goofier clothes.
A self-protective imagination gap
I think what I saw was this 18-year-old’s inability to imagine herself aging into someone who looked like us. And I get that. It’s hard to imagine when you’re 18 and your body’s perfect, blooming, unblemished, perky, that you’ll ever look like someone decades older. You think you’ll escape. We all do. We all secretly believe, “It’ll never happen to me, personally.” I think kids that age almost see aging as a failing on our part, one they’ll never be so blind as to stumble into.
It’s this absolute disconnect–making elders “Other”–that enables and reinforces ageism. This is why Ashton Applewhite’s idea of becoming “An Old Person in Training” is so important. In a nutshell, it means actively imagining ourselves into our aging bodies.
Hard as that is, it’s much harder, when we’re young, to imagine ourselves into the experienced, generous, creative mind we’re likely to develop as we age. Becoming An Old Person in Training in our 30s, 40s, and 50s is a radical act: it’s a refusal to reject our future selves.
I like to think and do believe that we elder activists are, through our daily example of passionate vitality, dismantling the ageist ideas that blinded the young woman who sat in my living room a few months ago. Do you agree? Leave a comment below.