When I was a teenager, I had a friend who was genetically Black, but whose skin was light enough for her to pass as white. I remember her trying to decide as she was preparing to go to university whether she should pass as a white person. In those days in America there was even more overt prejudice against Blacks than today. Blacks were forbidden – by law – to eat in the same restaurants, use the same rest rooms, or stay in the same hotels as whites. They were not allowed to sit in the front seats of the bus, and were expected to give up even their seats in the back if a white person would otherwise be forced to stand.
My friend decided, nonetheless, not to pass as a white. I’m Black, she said. Whatever the challenges that come with that, I’m not going to try to pretend my way out of that.
Ten days ago I celebrated by 75th birthday. To my delight and surprise, so did many friends and family. They really made me feel like it was a big deal.
But as a 75-year-old I am now subject to some of the considerable prejudice that is often felt toward the elderly in this modern world. Especially as the baby boom is reaching old age, the younger generation often expresses the view that the old should get out of the way. These feelings seem to me to be greater here in England than in America, but they exist in both countries and no doubt beyond.
I still don’t look my full age (at least on good days) and I now have the choice of pretending to be younger than I am –or at least pretending to myself that I’m fooling other people about my true age.
I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend. Being 75, like every other year in my life, comes with both its unique challenges and unique joys. I suspect much of the prejudice against the elderly is a result of our rapidly changing world. Three-year-olds these days can sometimes explain computer games and devices to their grandparents. 8-year-olds can write code to create apps for the internet browser. 15-year-olds are often taller and stronger than anybody in the family’s older generation. And often, neither the younger nor the older generation appreciates the well of wisdom and knowledge and even intelligence that this apparently simple grandparent possesses.
There are some things, though, that one can only learn with time. It takes decades to learn that what other people think about you isn’t the final arbiter of worth. It usually takes just as long to learn that physical beauty or celebrity or money do not automatically generate peace or happiness. It takes long and hard work to discover that a successful life partnership requires more than sexual passion. But once one has learned these things, they are a source of great contentment and leave room for much greater joy in things that do indeed make life worthwhile.
Admittedly, I am not suffering from the ill-health, loneliness, mental deterioration, or worries about money that plague many of the elderly. As for the future, I know no more than anyone else when and how my life will proceed, or how many years I still have to live.
But that does not that mean I cannot embrace the intense joy I so often feel now just because I am alive today.
I’m 75 years old! And I love it!