I once witnessed a TV interview with a dying man who was asked if he harbored any regrets. He responded:
Yes, I wish I hadn’t lied to myself so often and suppressed my true thoughts. No one knows me as I really am.
This idea has haunted me ever since. I hide my true thoughts too. Don’t we all do that to some extent? It’s a major reason I decided to write Abdication: God Steps Down for Good. I was 75 and held an uncommon point of view on the world that relatives and friends neither knew or shared. I could leave a false impression of who I really was in the minds of people who knew and loved me. It was time to speak honestly. Falsehoods mislead, not just deceive. Who would care anyway? I’m getting old. What real difference could it make if I broke the taboo of polite religious discourse? Besides, this is me, it has been all along; I hadn’t changed; the prospect of incipient senescence had liberated my courage.
After publishing the book, the non-response of some acquaintances, and the verbal and written response of others, indicated to me that not one but two taboos had been broken, the obvious one, the near blasphemy of inviting a deity to abdicate, and the less obvious but surprisingly powerful one, violations of the norms of aging.
What norms of aging? The same ones that apply to everyone; ones not particular to me. Let me state the case directly without embarrassment or complaint, because really, most of this is well meaning and pleasant. As one hits the late sixties to early seventies, securely or uneasily ensconced in comfortable retirement, one finds that younger people presume a linear, progressive, disengagement from the world, and loss of relevance. Influence wanes in making collective decisions. Shortly thereafter the ability to make good personal decisions is thrown into question. Parallel to this process of loss of influence and power, encouragement is given to assume the role of valued family icon, the embodiment of virtuous qualities and ancestral wisdom, assets that nevertheless won’t be regularly called upon and shouldn’t be volunteered. The main obligation is to admire, support, and assist grandchildren—a great benefice, solace and delight—and to take pressure off one’s hard working and over-extended children. You’re a monument now, a family totem. The predictable infirmities and confinements of motion enhance the effect. One should be in one’s place, ready to receive the caresses and blessings of family and other friendly pilgrims on special occasions and holidays
Such enshrinement includes expectations of consistency and predictability. One definitely is not to deviate sharply, change philosophical course, and write a serious provocative book. By this time one is thought too old to make a significant contribution to society, an expectation that has passed from yours to succeeding generations. Enjoy your retirement, steady as you go, is the vanilla advice.
Older people attain progressive familiarity with the strange phenomena of invisibility. People talk to others in your presence, look through and around you, walk silently past, unseeing, as if you’re invisible, not there. You understand by then that the actions and wisdom for which you are affectionately renowned are best identified by grieving survivors. A late claim to new wisdom, a published book, is surprising and makes people uneasy. A well done life review and series of scrapbooks would be preferable.
The effects of these two taboos, working in tandem, are predictable: pre-publication aversion to the book’s title and its implications, inclination not to purchase, silence regarding its existence, resistance to reading it, and most interesting, opaque and dissociated readings and summations. Think of these taboos as anchors dragging the book back out of the reach of its readers, or, another metaphor I like better, as a magnetic shield around the reader-earth diverting the solar flare book away from its audience, but not completely, still allowing random words, sentences, paragraphs, and images to get through, register on retina screens and up the nerve chains to the brain, thus producing dissociated thoughts and surprising summations of its contents.
I feel I should admit two points at this juncture. Perhaps, alas, this whole story is totally wrong, and Abdication is just a poor, insipid book. Second, regarding the abundance of dissociated, random readings, I must confess that students, in forty-five years of teaching, never learned most of what I was teaching, but nevertheless granted gold star ratings to me for the acquisition of precious side-bar lessons that, according to them, informed and enriched their lives. One student related the most vital lesson she learned from me:
I stopped smoking because you couldn’t.
Why should it be any different in reading my book. Maybe I’m like Chance (Chauncey) the Gardener in Peter Sellers’ wonderful and wise movie Being There whose vacuous homilies
Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
were deeply meaningful to his rich and powerful auditors and handlers, so much so as to elevate him to advisor to President of the United States. Overlook that last part, please. The point is that student responses to my side-bar comments, affectionately called “Willisms” by some, often asserted the attainment of deeper meaning and wisdom than I had been aware of in their production.
The only new direction I have decided to take on the basis of this humorous pack of facts—the detritus of taboo violation— is to write blog essays on particular ideas in the book that have not thus far drawn attention in the comments of readers. I see the book as a sketchbook full of dubious, quasi-rational ideas, all circling around a clear central theme. I conclude little and close few possibilities. The book is fundamentally a personal document, a thought festival of sorts. I think of it more as a sculpture than a set of essays, although it is that. The book has four parts: a haunting, terrorizing dream; an apologetic slap at monotheists coupled with plaudits to philosophers, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and a songwriter; a simplistic reinvention of humankind; and an octet of studies that transport the readers to the open future. I find it light, and a breath of fresh air. Few readers have noted the theme, the dream, the four part structure, and the possibility of reinventing ourselves, nor has anyone commented on any of the studies.
These silences provide me with a nice opportunity to discuss these matters one at a time in the blog. That is what two of the last three blog essays have begun, and which future ones will continue.
If any of this sounds like disappointment; it is not. I have been thrilled that so many people like the book, have learned something from it, and have generously commented on its meaning to them. I am particularly grateful to the readers who have written reviews of the book. I look forward to introducing particular ideas from the book to blog readers. Old age is a remaining opportunity to seize freedom. Ageism bears sweet as well as bitter fruit. Invisibility has its blessings.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
May 8, 2015
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good