(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

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As many of us know, the life of Michael Jackson was defined by his amazing talent, but also by troubling events and depression as he got older.  Jackson once said this in an interview, “I don’t want a long life.  I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.  I think growing old is the most ugliest thing.  When the body breaks down and you start to wrinkle, I think it’s so bad.  I never want to look in the mirror and see that.  I don’t understand it.  And people say that growing old is beautiful.  I disagree.”

As a follow-up question, Jackson was asked if he was afraid to die.  He responded very simply, “Yes.”

Without getting into tabloid reports about his life, it’s nevertheless well-known Jackson was obsessed with youthfulness.  In his thirties he began receiving 13 daily hormone injections to keep him young.  He underwent numerous plastic surgery procedures to change his appearance and keep him looking youthful.  His primary residence for many years was a property he named Neverland after the fictitious place in the Peter Pan story.  He filled it with amusement park rides, pinball machines, candy shops, ice cream parlors and a zoo.  Indeed, it’s said he loved the idea of actually being Peter Pan – someone who never grows up.

The character of Peter Pan, created by author J.M. Barrie, represents the joys of youth.  But he, and the real life Michael Jackson, also represent more troubling issues in our culture about worshipping youth and fearing growing old.  Peter Pan, in Barrie’s stories, forgets all of his adventures so that he never gains wisdom about challenges and setbacks.  His devil may care attitude is selfish and dangerous.  Without knowing about death, Peter Pan simply does not care what he does.  When he faces death after being tied to a rock in the middle of the ocean, he briefly feels scared.  But that thought quickly vanishes.  He acts and thinks like a forever child.

Peter Pan is thus charming and fun.  His character has captured the imagination of children who dream of no responsibilities, no school, and never becoming a boring adult.  Barrie created Peter Pan, however, to admonish children AND adults.  In order to be enjoyed, youthfulness must be understood in the larger context of an entire life. 

My message series theme this month is:   “often overlooked discriminations,” and my topic today is:   “ageism.”  I chose this month’s theme to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s January birthday.  He was a champion for racial equality, but also a champion for ending all forms of prejudice.

My hope is that by looking at three often overlooked forms of discrimination, ageism today, ableism next Sunday, and educationism in two weeks, we will gain insight into the causes of any form of discrimination.  At its core, discrimination is caused by a fear of the other.

Like Peter Pan, most people are born narcissistic and even selfish – with the notion that the world revolves around oneself and one’s needs.  We can learn cooperation and altruism, however, as we mature and grow older.  Juvenile self-centeredness will then fade and youthfulness becomes something still joyful, but complimented by sacrifice, service to others, and a healthy dose of humility. 

That evolution can begin, I believe, when a young person learns about death and one’s mortality.  From that point onward, one either retreats into a Neverland false reality – doing one’s best to hold onto youth and fearing growing old, or …… one accepts his or her mortality and chooses to celebrate every minute of life as a blessing. 

If we don’t evolve, or only partially evolve in our thoughts about living and dying, we will continue to be aware of the universe only as it relates to us personally.  We will be stuck in immature selfishness and see others as a threat to our survival and well-being.  They must be feared and hated.  All forms of discrimination result.

And ageism is one of them.  That term was coined in 1969 and its definition has evolved over the years.  Ageism is now defined as having negative stereotypes or discriminatory thoughts for people based on their advanced chronological age, or a perception of someone as being ‘old’.

Ageism is expressed in numerous ways.  In many organizations, the greater one’s age, the more likely discrimination happens – in hiring, promotions, in downsizing and in pay.  Many employers today want the energy of young people at a low pay rate.  Indeed, the average peak wage earning time for Americans is now between the ages of 45 and 54.  Before age 45, wages increase.  But after age 54, average wages decrease.

Discrimination against those perceived to be old also occurs with healthcare.  Medical professionals often have implicit bias against the elderly by assuming their conditions are incurable and can only be managed.  Someone younger with the same conditions, many studies show, are treated more aggressively.  Older persons are also often ignored or treated disrespectfully in the healthcare industry.

As a general rule, society can be impatient, rude and sometimes violent toward the elderly.  Older drivers are perceived to be less able and slow.  The same can be true when older persons are encountered in the home, at stores or other locations – they move too slow, they’re cognitively diminished, they’re depressing.  Anger and frustration toward them result.

Digital ageism is a recent phenomenon.  Older persons are considered both ignorant and incapable when it comes to digital technology.  The elderly, many people believe, can’t learn how to operate digital devices and they’re inept at understanding or developing anything innovative.  100 years ago, engineers were said to have 35 years before their knowledge and innovative abilities were considered obsolete.  In the 1960’s, it was said to be 10 years.  Now, engineers and their knowledge are often considered outdated after only three years.  Several studies prove just the opposite, however.  People over the age of 50 have no less an ability to learn new technology then those in their twenties.

Benevolent prejudice is another symptom of ageism.  People with good intentions nevertheless implicitly discriminate against those they perceive to be old by speaking to them in very loud voices, addressing them the same as they would a child, or insisting on physically helping them when it’s not needed or wanted.

Ageism also exists even among senior citizens.  Just as some blacks favor other black people with lighter skin tones, some senior citizens discriminate against those older than themselves, or against those with more physical challenges.  In some retirement communities, for instance, persons living independently refuse to dine or associate with those in assisted living situations, or those using wheelchairs and walkers.  Even worse, persons living in skilled nursing facilities are usually completely isolated and ignored by the rest of a retirement community.

Ageism in general is made worse by what is called ‘visual ageism.’  People are discriminated against not because of cognitive or physical abilities, but because of how old they look.  Studies have shown that young people who are made up and dressed to look much older experience significant prejudice – even when they move and think equal to their young chronological age.

Overall, ageism results from a fear of the other – in this case the fear that an older person will upset our sense of well-being by being a reminder of aging and death.  We don’t want to figuratively look in a mirror and see our future selves – those who have wrinkles or grey hair.  That’s why advertising, TV shows and movies have historically emphasized youthfulness.  Many young and old people don’t want to see Maggie Smith or Morgan Freeman in a show.  They want to see Beyonce and Channing Tatum. 

That form of discrimination is even worse for women.  Combining ageism and sexism, older men are often treated with less prejudice than older women.  Older men, in our society, are often considered distinguished, wise and even attractive.  Older women are often not.  Maggie Gyllenhaal, an acclaimed actor who is 37, was recently turned down a movie role because producers believed her too old to play the lover of a 55 year old man.  One famous actress has said that TV and movie roles for women come in three stages – voluptuous babe, then working professional, and finally – the title role in ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’  That prejudice is ageist AND sexist.  Men, both straight and gay, often desire younger romantic partners.  Women have similar desires, but I believe they are more evolved than men – they value the stability, wisdom and touch of selflessness that can come with age.

One of the obvious problems with ageism is that it not only is discriminatory and bad for society, it is also self-fulfilling.  Everybody ages and most will advance to senior citizen status.  But persons who are ageist when they are young, they grow old and are ageist toward themselves.  In other words, if we believe when we’re young that people over a certain age are physically and mentally diminished, that there is no joy in being older, that romance and sex are impossible, and that youth is better, then that is what we’ll believe about ourselves when we’re older. 

Studies show that people who think that older is equal with incapacity and depression, they become that way when they age.  But the opposite is also true.  Those who see age as only a number and who believe one can be active and vital at any age, they end up being vital and happy almost all their lives.

Solutions to ageism are similar to those for racism or any other stereotyping.  For one, we can bring about systemic change by outlawing ageist discrimination.  Australia is a world leader in having anti-ageist laws.  California is not far behind.  Just last year its legislature enacted laws forbidding employers rom asking or keeping on file the age or birthdates of applicants and employees.

Other solutions are more subtle and, I believe, touch on areas of spirituality.  We need to look within ourselves and be willing to examine our fears and biases about the elderly.  Most people are ageist in some way.  I know I am because I lament the physical changes I’ve experienced – grey hair, aches that I never had before, weaker eyesight and hearing.  Very few people truly embrace the natural aging process and celebrate it.

That results from the one great fear we have:   death.  Since we are most likely alone among species in being aware of our eventual demise, we also are alone in suffering the negative consequences of that awareness.  Superstition and religious belief happen, I believe, from a fear of death.  So too do racism, sexism and ageism.   People can’t seem to outgrow and rise above a me-first thinking that places the self at the center of one’s awareness.  I want to survive and thrive.  Anything or anyone that threatens my ability to thrive, I will fear, hate and discriminate against.  That central idea was underlined by Ta Nihisi Coates in his book we read last January, Between the World and Me.  Race is a concept created by whites.  It has no justification in biology.  All humans have virtually the same DNA.  But, whites use race as a way to control and feel superior to blacks – all as a way to economically take advantage of them.

        If we are to eliminate any prejudice, we must eliminate our fear of death.  That means moving away from self-focused thinking that comes with fear.  Regarding ageism, we must eliminate fears that growing old and dying are somehow bad.  That does not mean we should want to die.  It means we must, instead, seek to really live.

As I often say, we can’t know something is good unless we understand its opposite.  Life cannot be fulfilling and joyous unless we know that it is finite.  Can Peter Pan, who never grows old, really be happy?  What knowledge, insights and sense of purpose can he find if the only thing he feels is endless immaturity?  How can he experience the heights of love if he is to never learn the heartache that love can also bring?

If we do our best to understand that death is one moment in our eternity, perhaps it will lose its sting.  I will find eternity, and thus peace and joy, by what I do with my life to make future lives better.   My eternity is also in what comprises me.  The atoms that make up my body and stimulate my brain to think and feel, those will go on forever.   By understanding and feeling the countless satisfactions of life, by being aware that I will exist not just as I am now but in many other forms, I can embrace birth, youth, aging and dying as inevitable – but also beautiful.  To fully enjoy life,……….aging and death must be accepted and even celebrated.

Most importantly, by engaging my mind to think and believe that truth, I will banish my prejudices and implicit biases.  All life, especially ALL people, will truly be dear to me.  They will enhance and enrich my living experience.  I’ll find the same satisfaction in hugging my dying father, or visiting my mom with dementia, as I do when being around young people.  Ultimately, I’ll celebrate life right now and all the good that I can do with it……… and let go of all the rest.