The Aging of Men: It’s Not for Sissies

The Aging of Men It's For for Sissies Photo by emillio labrador

Unless you live the standard male gender role and have plenty of courage, testosterone, and stoicism—writes Les Kertay—aging is not for you. And if you talk about your age? Well then, you’re a sissy.

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“Aging is not for sissies.” So my cardiologist told me in 2006 when I first saw him for a sudden-onset atrial flutter, or, in plain English, a condition that unpredictably caused my heart to beat like a hummingbird’s.

Sissy. It was a word that I heard a lot as a kid—being that I was a gangly nerd with a funny name—but not since. I knew, of course, what my doctor meant: it was a humorous opening to tell me that aging means small bodily betrayals begin to happen at an accelerating pace, joints begin to creak, pains begin to accumulate, and—if you’re not careful—hypochondriasis rears its ugly head. I liked my cardiologist immediately, because he spoke to me directly and truthfully, with a good heart.

There was something in the use of that word sissy, though, that stuck with me. What did it mean?

Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, tells me that the word sissy

(also sissy baby, sissy boy, sissy man, etc.) is a pejorative term for a boy or man who violates or does not meet the standard male gender role. Generally, sissy implies a lack of courage, strength, coordination, testosterone, male libido, and stoicism, which have traditionally been important to the male role.

So, unless you can live the standard male gender role and have plenty of courage, testosterone, and stoicism, aging is not for you. By extension, feeling your age, especially if you talk about it, probably means that you’re a sissy.

Huh. I suspect that means a lot of us are in trouble.

♦◊♦

I have come to an age at which it becomes impossible to pretend any more that this is “middle age.” It became impossible earlier this year, the year I turn 60. I’ve always tried to live in the moment, recognizing that each moment could be my last, and so is not to be wasted. What’s different now is the awareness that, even if I live to a ripe old age, I am closer to being dead than to being born. The force of this awareness took me by surprise. It’s not a cause for despair, but it sure is sobering.

I am not alone. There are a lot of men who have arrived at, or are rapidly approaching, this point beyond middle age. To complicate things, we are doing so at a time when the world, especially the world of the work by which we have always defined ourselves, is changing at a breathtaking pace. It is a workplace that has been completely transformed during the time since we were newly minted adults, by tectonic shifts in technology, media, gender roles, and social mores. When we were in college, and for some even graduate school, the internet was accessible only to a few, and entirely in text form. In our 30s, the first personal computer was invented and brought to market, and modems that operated at 14.4 Baud were blazingly fast. Smartphones, which we no longer seem able to live without, are an invention of our 50s. During this same timeframe, the “Iron Curtain” fell (who even remembers that phrase?), the world’s economy globalized at a breathtaking pace, and we experienced the bursting of the dot com, security, and housing bubbles. Let’s not forget the Great Recession, from which we are only now beginning to emerge. Maybe.

We have had to figure out how to relate to issues of gender, privilege, and diversity in entirely new ways, with varying—many would say dismal—degrees of success. A younger generation has burst on the scene, bringing with them a more natural feel for technology, social media and, frankly, the integration of work and the rest of life. Corporate culture has been dominated by ever-increasing demands for efficiency, with new pushes for outsourcing, staff reductions, and changes in benefits that have rendered us less and less secure.

Many of us have responded to all this insanity by working harder, constantly reinventing ourselves, and trying to hang on to jobs even when they don’t fit us or, if we find ourselves unemployed, taking any job we can because work still defines who we are.

But now we find ourselves at the cusp of an age where we are attempting the transition from Erikson’s 7th stage—generativity, where the question is “can I make my life count?”—to the 8th—wisdom, where the question is “is it ok to have been me?”

And many of us don’t like the answer that comes to mind, but we don’t know what to do. So some of us lash out, railing against the wave of social change, trying our best to keep the status quo the status quo. Others of us are trying to embrace the new world order, reinventing ourselves once more in an effort to ft into this interconnected, vibrant, young, bewildering world.

So what does it mean to be a man aging in this world at this time? It means to be wrestling with achy joints, fear, and regret at a time where we are trying to figure out if it’s “ok to have been me.” Did I do something worthwhile, did I live a good life, did everything I thought was valuable really amount to anything?

If I am to be honest with you I have to tell you that for my own response, the jury is out. I look at my children at I think “yes” —they are better than I deserve, and better than I could possibly have done on my own, but yes, I gave them my best and they are great. I look at my wife, and the launch of her new store, and I think “yes”—for all my foibles I’ve given her my best, and loving her was the best thing I’ve ever done. I look at my writing and I think “some of it was pretty good,” but I’m not done there just yet.

Notice that a day in the office didn’t even make the list of questions. Neither did my promotions, my degrees, or my bank balance.

For those of men my age, what are your answers? For those women who love them, you should at least know the questions are being asked. To those of you men and women young enough to think I’m being a self-indulgent old fuddy, your turn will come. How will you live your life so that you like your answers when it does?

The aging of men—it really isn’t for sissies, but the courage it will take is not the apparent heroic courage of the Marlboro Man, but the courage to ask, “Is it ok to have been me?”

Photo: emillo labrador / flickr

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About Les Kertay, Ph.D.

Les Kertay is a writer, speaker, leader, and coach. He has over 30 years experience working with others as a bodyworker, a practicing psychologist, a coach, and a corporate leader. He is also ecstatically married and the father of 6; the happy chaos of our home currently includes 2 teens, 6 dogs, 5 cats, and a bird. Les wants nothing less than to set the world on fire, to be a part of awakening full potential in individuals, relationships, companies, and communities. Find Les on Facebook, Twitter @DrLesKertay, and LinkedIn, or at his blog: www.awakenedmoments.com.

Comments

  1. Les, for me the best part of aging has been finding out that it IS okay to have been me. I wish I had been more me than I was.
    As far as the rest of aging, the aches, the decline in vision (hello presbyopia!) and all the other little things that fall apart – that sucks eggs!

  2. Tom Brechlin says:

    30+ years ago there was a movie called “Four Seasons” where one of the characters Danny Zimmer, played by Jack Weston was obsessed with his aging. I was in my late 20’s when the movie came out and I can so clearly remember this character and remember thinking that I hoped I wouldn’t be like him when I grew older. He was very articulate in describing his aging … it kind of bothered me.

    So here I am 30 years later reading your article. Us guys have a lot in common. Much of what you wrote is similar to my thinking.

    Just yesterday before mass there was a group who were talking in the vestibule. One couple recently found out they were having a baby. Prompted by my wife we started talking about the size of our kids when they were born and so on. The focus went from our kids to how big we were all were when we were born. To their amazement, I told them I was premature (under 5 pounds)and was pronounced dead at birth and was given last rights. Needless to say, I survived and here I am … so what the heck does this have to do with anything? Within moments after disclosing the information I said, “God must have had a plan for me.”

    Since then I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’m a religious man and well grounded in my faith but this really got me thinking …. Did I do what God wanted of me or is there still something that I need to do. Searching my memory banks and going through the woulda, coulda, should …

    Kinda scary to think that at my age I’m still trying to figure this stuff out. Heck, when I was 41 I had a quintuple bypass and have had a few heart attacks sine. So why the heck am I still hear? So we ask children, what do you want to do when you grow up and I’m still asking the same question to myself.

    Les, thank you for the article…. When I look at the picture you used for the article I have to say that in my head, I feel like the guy on the left but sometimes feel like the guy on the right.

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I’ll be 70 in a couple of years. Although I’m a sociologist, I tend to see biological factors as more basic and essential. So I’ve been delighted and surprised that most days I feel like I’m 22. But a lot saner, and more courageous, I think. Since retiring, I’ve tended to be a lot more truthful because I see that, and my talented daughter, as my legacy. I still like a good argument. My wind isn’t that good, but my martial arts skills are still pretty good. The arthritis in my knees has scaled back. I do full body Reiki daily, so maybe that helps. As long as the exercise program is there, I still feel pretty good. I do need Viagra, and I take blood pressure and diabetes medicine– but I feel pretty young. I think we do reify age– and that’s self-defeating.

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