There are two unconformable truths about the aged in modern culture. One is that they are not wise, just old. The other is that they are not allowed to die nor do they want to.
It’s not, in fact, wise to assert that “with experience comes wisdom,” and it’s a shame that it’s not true today. Living a long life probably won’t teach you much about how to live that thing that Aristotle called “the good life,” especially as modern culture gallops along at breakneck speed. How can the old tutor the young when the young continue to face “creative destruction”? “Dear grandpa, can you advise me about how to rock at this side hustle, handle the meta-crisis, and avert the worst of climate change? Sincerely, Little Jimmy.” The aged, in our time, are simply those who, having passed their time pursuing “the goods life” (Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation), are passed by as history inexorably unfolds its hidden, tortuous logic.
Worse than the aged’s lack of wisdom is the white-knuckled fact that we can’t let them die nor can they let us let them go. Strangely, we have so little use for them; oddly, we don’t care much for their presence, or their smells, anyway; yet, perversely, we can’t let them die.
Long ago–or was it yesterday?–secularism rolled over all rites and rituals associated with dying while gripping onto bare life, with the result that death, though it continues to occur, is quite an embarrassment, isn’t it? What an awkward fact, so awkward that we can’t talk about it before it sneaks up on them (never on us), as it’s “kindly stopping by” (Emily Dickinson), or after it appears to have happened.
The key to this sleight-of-hand is to forget the dead as quickly as they disappear. I’m not even sure, in fact, that they die; more likely they just stop showing up. Anyway, here today, gone…
But come now: isn’t that strange–and so very sad–also? All this time devoted to maintaining the life of this bare waning being, only to–oops–forget about him some days after that thing once referred to as a funeral.
Well, but we might as well forgo funerals anyway. All that pomp and circumstance. Just cremate the darn thing, hop on a 25-minute Zoom call, and then toss the ashes in some hidden corner in the local park. Let’s not make a fuss, ya know?
And herein lies the rub: we never see fit to make a fuss. About anything. We suffer on quietly, desperately and expect the same of the aged. Sure, we don’t care much about the latter because we know they have nothing to teach us, with the notable exception that we cling to their unsouled body for dear–what? But then, well, come on: let’s not get bent out of shape. Ashes to whatever, dust to whatever.
Our cluelessness, knowing no bounds, is stunning. The hidden magic in the whole secular ensemble? Ensuring that we don’t think about anything that was written here today. Don’t bury the dead; bury thought and feeling. If we don’t think about it or feel our way into it, maybe it’ll just go away. In a way, it does. Just revert to our defaults in the belief that our defaults, never our loves, can’t possibly discomfit us, can they? Not if they keep sinking, as we do, into oblivion.