Aging in American Culture: Heschel's Vision

Article excerpt

Thomas R. Cole is the author of The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America and a producer of two recently released documentaries Life Stories and Still Life: the Humanity of Anatomy.

I am delighted to be writing this, the first of a new column for Tikkun. "To Grow In Wisdom" will focus broadly on the topic of aging as seen through the lenses of cultural criticism, history, theological inquiry, and practical concern with the lives of older people.

My interest in aging began abruptly one morning in September 1953. I was four years old. My father left home that morning and drove his car into a bridge. He never came home. His death transformed me into an aged, lonely little boy, a senex/puer. Ever since, I have wanted to know what it means to live a long and happy life.

For the last twenty-five years, I have written, taught, made films, and consulted about the human experience of growing old and caring for the frail and sick elderly. I came to see aging as a path that leads to the light; yet my father's ghost cast a very dark shadow. Until my late forties, I carried a burden of guilt, anxiety, and depression, punctuated by primal flashes of an almost wild joy. During the last few years, I have passed through the narrow neck of my life's hourglass. I have laid my father's ghost to rest and restored him as a living ancestor. Now, in my early fifties, I have a growing confidence in my capacity to become an elder and a puer/senex--an old man filled with the joy and openness of a young boy.

I've taken the title for this column--"To Grow in Wisdom"--from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's address to the first White House Conference on Aging in January 1961. Heschel understood that older people needed spiritual security as well as Social Security. He saw all too clearly that mid-twentieth-century American culture emphasized precisely those values that drained aging of dignity and meaning.

Two things in particular troubled Heschel: the traumatic fear of aging (or being considered old) that he saw all around him; and the trivialization of life he sensed among people (he had men in mind) who were no longer working. Heschel traced fear of aging and the trivialization of leisure to the same source: a capitalist culture which turned the individual into a "machine for the making and spending of money.... The moment the machine is out of order and beyond repair, one begins to feel like a ghost without a sense of reality."

Aging, in other words, was equivalent to breaking down and being cast aside as good for nothing ("What do you think I am--a no-goodnik?" my grandmother asked when I suggested that she consider going into a Jewish Home for the Aged.) And retirement, Heschel thought, encouraged people to live "a pickled existence, preserved in brine with spices." Their days revolved around recreation and entertainment--a developmental dead-end, lacking in social or spiritual significance. …