I couldn't resist. That handsome older man is Aiden Shaw (a mere 53). All I know about him (without delving too deeply into Wikipedia) is that he's "a former adult film star" and has done a lot of modeling in the past six years, for pretty obvious reasons. I don't know if he's a nice guy.
It's the nice-guy kind of modeling I want talk about in this post.
We are changing the definition of retirement, largely because, thanks to medicine, nutrition, and general prosperity, we are changing the definition of longevity. So we have an opportunity to demonstrate what matters most in a longer life — more than, say, endless golf or endless Costco cruising.
Acting Like We Mean It
What matters most is how we relate to others and what we stand for. And these things are not theoretical. They have to be acted upon. We have to walk the talk. And because we change as we age — all of us all the time — there is a constant opportunity to refine who we are and what we exemplify. A.J. Jacobs, an American author and lecturer, says, "It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting."
Anyone who has had children knows the power of emulation. Children look to their parents continually for clues about how to be. That instinct seems to be bred firmly in the bone. Beholding my own grown children, I've been shocked at emulation's strength, perhaps because I was stupidly unaware of it for most of their lives, thinking that we are all our own people going our own ways. Not so. We are partly that and very much the products of those around us setting examples, both admirable and not.
Creatures of Mimicry
I read a blog this week written by someone named Alex Danco. He was writing about René Girard, a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science who died in 2015. Girard, says Danco, understood the human condition like few others, in particular our deeply ingrained impulse to mimic. From Danco's blog:
Human beings are creatures of mimicry. We are evolutionarily supercharged to do one thing better than anyone else: learn by watching and copying others. And the most important thing we learn is how to want.
As we grow up and live our lives, we watch others and learn what it is we ought to want. Aside from the basics, like food, water, shelter and sex, our desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people. But what is hard-coded into our DNA and hard-wired into our brains is the desire to be; and to belong. The true root of all desire, Girard and others argue, is never in the objects or the experience we pursue; it’s really about the other person from whom we’ve learned to want these things.
Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” for our desire: at a deep neurological level, when we watch other people and pattern our desires off theirs, we are not so much acquiring a desire for that object so much as learning to mimic somebody, and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want; we want to be.
Elders in the Headlights
This is the power we have throughout our adult lives, and, I would argue, perhaps most powerfully now, because of our status as elders. It's a way to give back. Yes, there is much written about how older people are written off by a youth-centered culture. And yes, most of us now consume less and are thus of less use to the commercial enterprises that tend to drive culture. And yes, we are naturally eclipsed by younger people assuming our positions in work and life with their greater strength and vitality and untrammeled passion and ambition. And yet, still, we are the models of where they will eventually go: older age. So we have a chance to do it well, and they have a chance to pay attention, if only from the corners of their eyes.
(A side note: Boomers are not looked upon favorably these days by a significant number of millennials — our children — who believe with some justification that we have done much of the consuming that is rapidly ruining the earth, we have focused so intently on our comforts and refusal to compromise that a debt the size of a London sewer fat ball has lodge in their future, we have given them a leaderless political system that is monstrously influenced by corporate money and are rife with deceit, and we are as hard to shake loose from the jobs they need as are burrs stuck on woolen socks. In short, they will struggle because of us. True or not, this resentment and these conditions, I think, makes it incumbent upon us to rectify. The modeling of helpful action in their direction is a good place to start.)
So, what exactly should we model?
I made a list. It poured out as if from a spigot. We can start with this: decency, generosity, moral backbone, grit, perseverance, courage, humility, selflessness, attentiveness, empathy, curiosity, concern for the common good, reduced consumption, advanced citizenship, gratitude, grace, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, softness (implying a looser hold on positions and things, and a gentler approach to almost everything), adventurousness in the face of the instinct to shrink as we age, humor, smiling and laughing, extending for others, peacemaking, physical strength and flexibility (my 90-year-old mother does yoga daily and was able, this past weekend, to bend over like a teenager and retrieve a grape that a five-year-old had dropped under a table), delayed gratification, calm, advanced relationship skills (of which many of our entitled fathers were sadly and destructively ignorant), community commitment, the graceful overcoming of adversity, embracing uncertainty, maintaining optimism, and, eventually, dying. (One day, I plan to write about dying inspiringly, but I’m out of my depth. I need more models. I plan to pay attention.)
Of all these virtues, perhaps the most important one is courage. Maya Angelou, the late American poet and author, said that without courage, "... you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency."
The other overlay is genuineness. A friend reminded me yesterday when were talking about modeling, that it has to be real. Without genuineness, the result is pantomime, an act that can be seen a mile away. We have to believe to convince.
What stops us? "It’s almost always the limits of our internal narrative," wrote Seth Godin this week. "Our guts. Our willingness to be kind, to believe, to care enough to leap."
The flip side of modeling virtues is, of course, modeling unwholesome behavior. Doing so, as, for example, the president of the United States is doing, grants a dreadful permission. Even if we think our unseemly habits or lazy self-gratifications are ours alone, to be enacted in semi-private, they will likely be seen by someone impressionable. I'm thinking of the impact of grumpy old men, or sexist men in general, or complainers, or gluttons, or the morose, the cranky, the feckless, the thoughtless, the insensitive, the macho, the profligate, the eco-stupid, the perpetually scowling, the willfully unhealthy, the needlessly but perpetually frightened, nervous, fretting, cowardly, callous, cruel... the list is endless. You get it. These states are ours to overcome in ourselves, or to model for those who might be watching. We can reinforce the grim stereotypes of old age, or bust them up with goodness and light. It's always our choice. And they too are what we leave behind when we finally depart.
(A small note about driving: I have known and experienced, as have we all, the timid, indecisive older driver and the angry, aggressive, old, male warrior driver. They both make the roads unsafe. Don't be one of these. They also make us all look bad.)
Community involvement is a way to be a supermodel. I'm surrounded by aging activists who are defending, among other things, our right to a cleaner environment. Some are opposing Nestlé's obscene and relentless selling of our groundwater in plastic throwaway containers that are shipped around the world. Others are climate defenders, reminding politicians that everything now traces back to the carbon load (whether our political mis-leaders acknowledge it or not). Others are fighting locally to hold back developers who would greedily pave every farm field on earth with cheesy housing that makes them the most money, and to hell with quality of construction or civic life. These activist people, who are spending their time in support of the good and in opposition of the worst offenses of capitalism, are doing it for the rest of us. They are beautiful models.
I have lately been thinking that the vast majority of us fall so woefully short of devoted community activists, and that it's just not good enough to merely make responsible buying decisions when faced with climate catastrophe. Then, this week, I read this quote about modeling by Robert H. Frank in a book review in the New York Times:
But although individual steps like installing solar panels or buying an electric vehicle won’t by themselves solve the climate crisis, taking these actions has far more impact than might be apparent. For one thing, they increase the likelihood that others will take similar steps. (Aerial photos show that most houses with solar panels are adjacent to others that have them.) Such behavior also deepens people’s sense of identity as climate advocates, in the process increasing the likelihood that they will support political candidates who favor strong climate legislation and knock on doors to help them get elected.
Precisely what I'm talking about. We affect each other more than we know. And in aggregate, we are moving together through this unceasing current of conductivity, of modeling-watching-emulating.
The Road You Want To Be On
Most beneficent modeling comes down to taking the high road. If you are reading this blog and buying into the premise that in the later decades of life working on being a better person is a worthy cause, then yes, taking the high road will invariably pay off, as tough as it can be. Sometimes all our well-cultivated virtues protest as we consider the high road when we really seek vengeance and the erection of walls — "What! He has treated me like a bag of horse manure for 30 years. Why should I...?"So why do it? Because it's good for you, me, and the world. It's modeling of peace-making and self-sacrifice. It's spiritual practice. And, bottom line, the payback far outstrips the cost, which is almost nothing. The choice gets easier. Once you get used to the high road, there doesn't seem to be another route.
Speaking Up & Shutting Up
There's a fine line I want to mention. It's the fine line between speaking up and shutting up. In my younger years, I had no fear of speaking up and did so much of it that at times it worked against me. Chastened with age, I speak up less. And while that's judicious modeling of humility and social grace, speaking up too little is also a shame and a waste, assuming that we have something to contribute.
Maybe the guideline is this: Speak up. But not too loud. Not about the old days. Or about yourself. Speak when you can add perspective that has been earned over many years of being alive, when you can help without seeming like an old fartish know-it-all. Speak up when you can be direct about important issues like the climate or our collective need to help people in despair. Or when you can comfort someone. Or show commendation or gratitude. Most of all, speak up when you can encourage the young, when you can help lift their spirits and boost their self-esteem. Why not? The world is seeming to me — and I think to many of those young people — like a more threatening place. We can help de-fang some of that menace with sympathy, empathy, and perhaps some outright cheerleading. That too is good modeling for other older people who might feel that the time has past to be heard.
The fine line is between pontification and contribution. Old pontificators are just annoying. We don't want to be one of those. The art, with age, is to distill, not to hold forth and lecture, to offer well-considered insights tightly packed for a younger audience, not for the pleasure of hearing ourselves speak, but for the possibility that what we say might be a help to them. If our words are not first run through that filter, they should probably be kept inside our heads, and we should probably keep gracefully and prudently quiet, and give others the floor.
With age, so easily, can come cynicism. We've seen it all, and much of it has been disappointing or disheartening. But cynicism is lousy modeling. The trick, if we are to encourage the next generations, is to aggressively resist the temptation to be cynical. Maria Popova, the creator of the superb weekly email, Brain Pickings, wrote this in her look-back after 10 years of publishing:
Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior... it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive... There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.
We need each other. At every stage of life, we crave those who can show the way. Travel is always better with guides. And we need each other along the continuum of life, the age spectrum. I don't know about you, but I'm always grateful to look upward in age and see commendable examples being set by those who have hit their seventies, eighties, and nineties with a sparkle in their eyes and, if physically possible, a forthrightness in their stride. Especially the nonagenarians. They are becoming heroes to me. My 90-year-old mother is one. My 98-year-old aunt is another. My 93-year-old friend Dudley is another. Uplifting models all.
I want to be them when I grow up.