Have you thanked…
…the person who found the cure for the childhood disease your grandmother had that otherwise would have killed her?
…the person who will teach your great-great-grandchild how to tie his shoes?
…the person who planted the seed that grew into the plant that germinated the cotton you are wearing? What about the person who trucked it from the field to the processing plant?
…the people who decided to build the road you were on this morning? What about the people who cared for the roadbuilders’ children so they could go to work?
Beginning today, I am going to post regular “have you thanked?” questions on this blog, and tweet them from @LoreeCD. What in the world do these have to do with LGBT aging? Let me explain.
In western countries, and particularly in the United States, a misconception lies at the root of the ageism to which we subject ourselves and each other. What haunts our fear and loathing of aging is not simply knowing that it brings us closer to our inevitable but much feared death, but – and for many people, much, much worse – the belief that aging brings a loss of “independence.” We feel terror at the prospect of needing someone to do something for us that we used to do for ourselves. Aging parents prefer to risk utility cut-offs rather than ask their adult children for help paying the bills. Confused elders fight losing the keys to the car simply so they don’t have to use public transportation. People tell family members they’d rather die than move into a nursing home and be “at the mercy” of some nurse aide.
The myth that lies at the heart of these fears is that adulthood – and maybe, particularly, American adulthood – means independence. The self-sufficient man who is capable of mapping the wilderness, living off the land and needing no one to make his clothes or tools or meals or keep him entertained or help him with injuries is the fantasy nugget around which we’ve build countless histories, movies, daydreams. We may be a toddler the first time we proudly announce, “I can do it myself!” but no matter how old we get, many of us never grow beyond that developmental milestone.
The “have you thanked…?” series is intended to remind us that no one, of any age or circumstance, is truly “independent.” Literally at every moment we touch something that someone else grew, designed, made, transported, marketed. Our very lives were made possible by people who are long dead and will never be named. The things we will use, watch, listen to, enjoy, cry over decades from now will be created by people who have not yet even been born. Have you thanked the various people who will, without ever knowing each other and possibly even living in separate countries, cut the flowers that your great-grandniece will carry at her wedding?
We are connected to each other, to those who came before, and to those who will come after in literally uncountable ways. We could not get through even a night’s sleep without help from others: who built the machine that wove the sheet you sleep under? Was it the same person who designed the machine? Who raised the hens that laid the eggs that fueled the inventor that day? Admitting that we need each other, that we need help, that we cannot get through a day without depending on others, is no shame. It is a simple acknowledgement: humans can exist in no other way.
So that’s the aging connection. What’s the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender connection?
It is simply this: it matters not one whit whether someone looks down upon those who aren’t formally educated, or thinks that people of a certain race are inferior, or believes that gay people are sinners and are going to hell, or wants other countries to keep their own people to themselves, or wishes Republicans would see the light, or holds any of the other thousands (millions?) of beliefs through which we divide and distinguish ourselves from each other. We cannot avoid touching each others’ lives in an infinity of ways. Do you know the gender history of the bus driver who drove to work the person you are meeting with today? The sexual orientation of the producer of the radio show that woke you this morning? Do you know for sure that the teacher who first introduced you to that thing you love was raised by heterosexual, married parents?
“Have you thanked…” postings are designed to be loving reminders: we literally could not live without depending on the help of millions of people, most of whom we will never even meet.
We are all connected.
Have You Thanked….? Part two
It is important to realize not only how much we depend on other people for the most simple and taken-for-granted things, but also what that means for who we are, what we do, and how we age.
Each of us only has 24 hours in a day, and a body and mind that can handle only so many tasks during that day. We don’t hear about a farmer who grows all of her own food, designs buildings, flies a passenger jet on its daily run from Paris to New York, and brokers a Middle East peace because it’s not possible for a single human to do all those things in one day, one week, or even one year. Each of us has to specialize and choose from infinite options the tasks we are going to take on at any given time. Choose to bake shaped sugar cookies from scratch, and plan on allocating an hour or so to the task of mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and clean up. Pick up a package of sugar cookies as you walk down the grocery aisle — baked and packaged by corporate workers, ferried to your favorite grocery store by a trucker, inventoried and placed on that shelf by grocery clerks — and you can allocate the other 59-1/2 minutes to some other task or activity. All of us make these kinds of trade-offs, consciously or unconsciously, hundreds of times throughout each and every day, using others’ labor to free up our time for activities we value more highly.
What happens as our bodies and minds age is that certain tasks that we used to routinely handle ourselves may become difficult or impossible. Maybe arthritis makes it too painful to go up and down stairs to the washer and dryer, and we have to hire someone to do the laundry. Maybe a fading memory means we have to give up our weekly Bridge tournament. Maybe the effects of a stroke make getting in and out of the shower too difficult, and we need someone to help us bathe. As a result of the American myth of independence, many older Americans see all of these as radical life changes and as losses of independence and dignity. That viewpoint is depressing, untrue, and (yet again!) masks the fact that we are all constantly making decisions, brokering tradeoffs, between what we will do ourselves and what we will let others do so that we may allocate more time to what we most value. Maybe these are not tasks we would have chosen to give up, but now that we must give them up, we have before us the opportunity we’ve faced literally hundreds of thousands of times before: how will we allocate our time? Will we use the slice of time that is no longer taken up with laundry, bridge, or whatever we did mentally while bathing to write the novel we’ve been carrying in our head for 30 years? Will we spend it taking an online course about the Renaissance art that we’ve always admired? Will we sign up to be a telephone friendly visitor to others who cannot leave the house? Will we try to learn from the person who helps us bathe what people of his or her generation think is important? Will we share stories with a young relative? Or will we think up the thought that will revolutionize a field, the country, the world?
The “loss of independence” in old age is a myth. We are not and never were independent of each other. The daily Have You Thanked…? questions are designed to help us develop the habit of remembering how interconnected and interdependent we are, and to recognize how that interdependence has always helped free us up to concentrate on the things we value most and/or do the best. Once we are in the habit of making these choices visible and conscious, it will become easier to negotiate the changes of later life and to see them not as irreversible losses, but as part of a lifetime’s endless series of opportunities to define who we are, what we do, and what we value.
What will you choose to contribute today?
Speaking of thanks, we would like to thank those who have helped fund some of our work, including (but certainly not limited to!): the Arcus Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the U.S. Administration on Aging, the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime, the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women, SAGE, the Eldon Murry Fund, and many individual donors. Thanks also to the many, many individuals who have helped sustain us emotionally and intellectually.