When “You’re Only As Old As You Feel” Is Not Enough

Debbie says:

At WisCon this year, I moderated a panel (suggested by and including the brilliant s.e. smith) called “When ‘Love Your Body’ Is Not Enough.” The concept was to explore how the “love your body” message can be empowering to some subset of people, and can also be perceived as a trap, or a judgment, to other people who are unable to, unwilling to, or uninterested in loving their bodies. One thing we discussed was that any time a simple slogan is treated as a complex life imperative, there will be people who are marginalized by not fitting the simple paradigm.

Now, the eminent Ursula K. Le Guin has weighed in on exactly the same topic, though her focus is aging rather than body love or body hatred per se. Taking as her jumping-off point Robert Frost’s “The Ovenbird,” she asks, “What to make of a diminished thing?”

With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

And the Pope isn’t Catholic.

“You’re only as old as you think you are!”

Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion. …

To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life — me.

As we expect from Le Guin, she cuts right to the heart of the matter. Any denial of an individual’s lived experience is erasure. This is no different from Samuel R. Delany’s clear explanation to the “colorblind” that “If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, you can’t be my ally.” Le Guin’s version might be more like “If you can’t see the ways I am diminished from what I was, you can’t see me.”

Where another 83-year-old might embrace “You’re only as old as you think you are,” Le Guin does not. And in any event, telling someone, “You’re only as X as you think you are” is always telling them what they are from your perspective. The essay goes on to discuss respect in a way somewhat new to me:

Respect has often been over-enforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding. It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification. Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all. Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death. The acceptance of that takes courage. Courage deserves respect.

I don’t usually think of “respect” as a form of reinforcing privilege, but Le Guin is right–that’s probably the way it’s most often used. Think “respect the judge” as applied a courtroom. To her named effects of “repressing aggression and requiring self-control” I would add “encouraging attention.”

Here’s Le Guin one more time:

I recommend studying the ovenbird’s question long and seriously.

There are many answers to it. A lot can be made of a diminished thing, if you work at it. A lot of people (young and old) are working at it.

All I’m asking people who aren’t yet really old is to think about the ovenbird’s question too — and try not to diminish old age itself. Let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.

Most commonly, we use “denial” to talk about things we don’t want to admit about ourselves, or face in ourselves. Le Guin is using it to talk about things we don’t want to hear from others, know about others, look at in others because we don’t want to see ourselves mirrored in them. This applies to aging (and youth), to fat, to disabilitythe list goes on.

A lot can be made of a diminished thing; in the end, each of us–if we live long enough to diminish–get to make our choices about that, choices constrained by not only age but class, race, and other social status markers, as well as our own personalities.

I’d rather have a diminished Ursula Le Guin in the world than a great many people I can think of at the apex of their strength and power. May she live and diminish as long as works for her.

1 thought on “When “You’re Only As Old As You Feel” Is Not Enough

  1. I think fear powers a lot of the denial of the actuality of ageing. Sometimes it’s a way of telling oneself: “Look at that person who is doing X despite age/disability/fat. If I can do X then I won’t ever be aged or damaged or disrespected.”

    I am saddened by the idea of loving our bodies conditionally. It’s okay to be 90 if you perform like a 50-year-old, to be disabled if you excel at wheelchair sports or to be fat if you are resplendently fatshionable.

    Don’t get me wrong, I applaud and celebrate those accomplishments and the guts and effort that it takes to display them. But I ardently agree with Le Guin’s argument that when we put conditions on respecting people, we diminish our entire culture.

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