One of the less pleasant transitions that we have to make in this life is the passage to old age. There’s a line in the movie “Elegy” that goes something like this: “The biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age.” The Mahabharata anticipates this insight in the incident where the god Dharma asks King Yudhisthira what the most surprising fact of life is. The king replies, “People see other people dying around them all the time, but nobody truly believes that he himself will die.”
In the same way, when we’re young we rarely think about the disasters old age will bring. They’re too unpleasant to contemplate, and also too far in the future. Why worry about something that’s so far away? Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But tomorrow we WILL die, and we’d better be ready for it. Before that, old age will smite us with its leprous hand, and we’d better be ready for that, too.
The problem is that there’s no real way to prepare for either old age or death. Both will come when they will come, and all we can do is brace ourselves. We can eat right and live right, exercise, observe proper diet, and keep our bodies fit so that they will last as long as possible; but sooner or later there will come a breakdown that we’ll be helpless to prevent. In fact, there may be a series of breakdowns—or a long, slow decline, or both—culminating in the Great Crash, death itself. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it. We can only postpone it for as long as possible and face it with stoic resignation.
The Grumpy Old Man Syndrome
There is one condition that old men are always in danger of falling into. That is the Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. Why are so many old men grumpy? And why do we never hear about Grumpy Old Women? I’m not a woman, so I can’t say. I suspect it may have something to do with genes, or hormones, or possibly both.
But there is a good reason for old men to become grumpy. Because of physical and mental decline, they can’t do some of the things they used to do. Activities they used to love have been snatched away from them. The dashing young athlete who used to love running and skydiving gets to the point where he can barely hobble, and his doctor will warn him that skydiving might give him a heart attack.
That inspires a thought. Sometimes it’s better never to have had something than to have it and then have it taken away. A person who has never been a runner and skydiver won’t have anything to miss when he gets old and can’t run or skydive anymore. It’s the former runner and skydiver who will miss it. You can’t grieve for the loss of something you never had.
Old age also brings a lack of positive reinforcement. When a man is young and handsome, he might smile at a pretty girl, she might smile back and pause to chat for awhile, and who knows what romantic escapades might ensue?
Try that as a Grumpy Old Man and see how far you get. You smile toothlessly at a cute girl, tip your hat, revealing your bald pate, and try to keep from tottering on your cane. Will she smile back? Not likely. Chances are she’ll grimace, shudder with revulsion, and speed up her pace as she continues on her way. But that’s all to the good. It means you will never be arrested on charges of being a senior sexual predator, and will reinforce Sri Ramakrishna’s wise warning to keep away from woman and gold.
Advice for Grumpy Old Men
A final note on Grumpy Old Manhood. When you get old, try not to be grumpy. It makes you unpleasant to be around. People will flee your grumpy presence and look for somebody ungrumpy, somebody warm and friendly. Degrumpify yourself. Get rid of that long face and sour look and assume a cheerful demeanor. Of course you won’t feel cheerful, but fake it. It will make you more acceptable to others.
You’ll also have to modify some of the grumpy responses you may have been in the habit of making. When people greet you with a cheery “Good morning!,” don’t snap back with a surly “What’s good about it?” They might reply, “Well, you’re alive, although come to think of it, that may not be so good after all.” Above all, don’t respond with the Ebenezer Scrooge Mantra: “Bah, humbug!” That will cement you forever in their minds as a certified curmudgeon to be systematically avoided.
Instead, come back at them with a big smile (even if it’s toothless) and something along the lines of “Yes sirree, Bob, it surely is a raht fahn day! Sun is shinin’, not a cloud in the sky, birds are singin’, crickets are chirpin’, and not a terrorist in sight. Too bad I’m gonna be dead pretty soon.” Come to think of it, you might omit that last line. They might say, “Good! You’re a real scream, Grandpa.”
Which brings me to the problem of how to respond when people ask, “How are you?” This is a common greeting, but a thoughtless one. Nobody wants to know how you are. They just want you to assure them that everything is hunky-dory. What you need to say is “Doin’ fine, no complaints, thanks.” And you might emphasize the point by bursting into song. I recommend the song “Zippadee doo-dah,” from one of the old Walt Disney movies.
By no means should you respond negatively to this greeting, as in the following imaginary dialogue:
Passing acquaintance: “How ya doin’, Grandpa?”
You (snarling): “I ain’t your grandpa, and I’m feelin’ like hell. Blood pressure is up, cholesterol is up, and I can’t find my colostomy bag. Got a heart murmur that won’t quit, got asthma and diabetes, gout, spondylosis, warts, aches and pains all over, I need a knee replacement, I can feel Alzheimer’s comin’ on, and I’m about to have an attack of diarrhea. Any other questions?”
Passing acquaintance: “No, sir. You have a nice day now.”
You (thumping your cane on the ground for emphasis): “Bah! Humbug!”
You see? Such frankness will endear you to nobody, especially if you have that attack of diarrhea on the spot!
William Page has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Association of Thailand. He is also a certified curmudgeon. He can be reached (if you dare) at email@example.com.
The likely reason you’re not sure if there are grumpy old women is because WE’RE INVISIBLE! Now that I’ve established my Grumpy Old Woman bona fides, on with the rant:
For the past year or so, the American public has been subjected to the mindless repetition of the unexamined mantra “Trump is 70. He can never change.” Don’t get me wrong, I think Trump is vile, (as well as evil, a veil, unfortunately live on TV, but not a Levi). Actually, I think he may be a demon, if there is such a thing. But this is about being psychologically and spiritually paralyzed at 70. As Bill eloquently lays out, facing old age and death demands extreme flexibility and dynamism, a dynamism that the young take for granted but somehow assume has been stripped from the old. Aging is an adjustment that shakes us to our literal foundation as our choices collapse with accelerating velocity; it requires renunciation (the fourth stage of life) and true heroism to succeed. We either deliberately, in full consciousness, make the change or rot in place. A perfect illustration of a symptom of that rot is Donald Trump’s hairdo.
My beloved Vedanta has addressed old age and self-renewal. There’s a paradigm-challenging image from Shakara’s Dakshina-murti-Stotram : “It is indeed a strange picture to behold; At the base of a Banyan Tree are seated old Disciples (i.e. aged Disciples) in front of a Young Guru.” The conventional image of the Guru-Disciple relationship is a wise old man surrounded by young students; but here Shankara creates an image of young guru with decrepit disciples. In digging into the significance of the image, many commentators have pointed out the interpretation that the disciple is aged because he/she carries the cumbersome conditioning past while the illumined guru is eternally young in spirit because he/she is free. As Swami Sarvadevananda expressed it: “Brahman is beyond all duality and time (age of a person) cannot reach there; therefore, ever youthful. He who carries this Brahman in his awareness is ever young.”