California Senator Diane Feinstein, may she finally rest, died in office on September 28. That’s how she wanted it. She clove to that office. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg clove to hers. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cleaves to his. Tears and tribute have poured out from every quarter (a gift of fleeting unity such passings offer). The remembrances highlight the courageous, sometimes feisty, always practical trailblazer that Feinstein was throughout almost the length of her career — not the wheelchair-ridden, manifestly confused old woman she became in recent months. A senator largely in name, her diminishment interfering with signal national business during a crucial moment.
I realize it is gauche to highlight this glaring fact at this particular moment. But you can count on me to say the unsaid, even when it’s gauche.
What with the devastating effect of Ginsburg’s refusal to resign on President Obama’s watch playing out in one Supreme Court decision after another, and the image of McConnell struck dumb in the midst of press appearances, and President Biden’s arthritic hobble, comments on the American Gerontocracy have come thick and fast. Most focus on practicalities: mental acuity, likelihood of an ill-timed death, experience gap with the bulk of prospective voters, that kind of thing.
In pre-modern cultures, and in some places down to the more recent past, there was a recognized stage of life that we have abolished: elderhood. The phase embraced adults past their physical prime, but entering into the kind of wisdom and insight and broader perspective that only comes with varied experience and, typically, an episode or two of humiliation — which brings a kind of learning that can only come through failure. Entering this role often required a rite of passage every bit as challenging as the initiation rites that ushered age-groups of youth into full adulthood.
There is a gorgeous Seneca tale that treats of this life passage.
Earlier in the hero’s career, of course, comes the passage into manhood, and all its trials and labors: climbing Ice Mountain; reviving the bones of those who tried before him and slipped on its glassy slopes; killing the many-fanged witch; you get the idea.
But more striking to me is what happens later, when The Listener has grown thin of hair and a little stiff in the knees. He’s resting on his past laurels, clinging to his status as a great hunter. Then comes a test he was warned of way back in his youth. A little too sure of himself, a little too entitled, he fails, and his eyes fly right out of his head. Then a bitter time of dispossession arrives for the stone-blind old man. He stoops to hiring himself out as a scarecrow. (How low can you go?)
Eventually, however, The Listener manages to fashion a strange and magical bow and arrow. With them, blind as he is, he brings down a deer. He asks that the deer’s eyes be put in his sockets. And lo! He can see! But the world looks entirely different. It’s bluish. He seems to have gained the ability to glimpse what is happening behind his back.
When those eyes dim, he accepts other animals’ offerings of theirs.
That is, The Listener shifts perspective. And thus he becomes an elder: a man revered no longer for his feats of arms, but for his Sight.
I invite you to listen to the great myth-teller Martin Shaw perform this story. Here is the first of four parts, which opens at the very dawn of the hero’s career, as a turbulent youth. The later test, if memory serves, comes in Part Three. But all four are well worth the listen, including the discussion after each. You should be able to follow links from one to the other along the right hand side of the YouTube page.
Here, though, is the point I am trying to make. The Listener — and generations of elders like him — was revered in that particular and irreplaceable role: the role of those with sight. It is the role of councillor, the person situated a bit off to the edge of the ruckus of the society, who is sought out for the different or deeper insight they can offer. Elders are those who have dared to take on the blue-lit perception of the deer, the acuity and breadth of vision of the osprey, the sonic imagery of the dolphin. They then are able to offer such perspectives up to the prime-of-life adults whose hands are still on the levers, in the dough of daily decision-making.
Crucial here is this fact: among elders, the investment of ego in the details of the outcome is releasing. The wisdom is on offer, no constraints. No gnashing of teeth in frustration at being unable to make this or that thing happen.
We no longer honor this role. As a result, there is nowhere for our McConnells or Bidens or Feinsteins to go, where they feel their contribution to society has value and effect. And so they cling to the levers; they stay ferociously invested in the day-to-day effects of their actions; they keep their hands deep in that dough till the nerves fail and the skin flays, souring the mixture.
Meanwhile, the full-fledged adults who should be rising to leadership roles are left dancing attendance. Or, disgusted, they turn away from public affairs.
This is no way to run a society.
And this, to me, is the real problem with our gerontocracy. It’s not just the concern that elderly men and women who hold high office may falter and interrupt important work, or die — or fail to die — at really unfortunate junctures. It’s also that we have deprived ourselves of a crucial social role. We have deprived ourselves of the human capacity to hold our sacred collective knowledge and bring it forth when needed. And we have deprived our elders of the opportunity to fill that role, and to be honored for the unique gifts they have to offer, instead of sniggered at for their physical frailties and their stubborn self-delusion.