Aging in American Culture: Heschel's Vision

By R, Thomas | Tikkun, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Aging in American Culture: Heschel's Vision

R, Thomas, Tikkun

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Aging in American Culture: Heschel's Vision


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?