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.
“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