Countering the curse of ageism

by Imelda Maurer


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Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser says there are curses far worse than the salty or profane words he believes are confessed under that category. I was entranced by his insights during a recent retreat entitled "Spirituality for Our Wisdom Years" at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.

He used the Genesis story of creation as the basis for understanding blessings and curses. On the sixth day God looked at creation, we are told, and found that "it was good, very good." Thus God blessed all of creation, affirming its goodness. Rolheiser went on to say that we too are to bless all of creation, which means to take delight in our lives and in each other, as God takes delight in creation.

When we affirm the goodness of God's work, the joy and beauty in ourselves and others, we are extending a blessing.

When we speak or act in a way that denies the goodness of life, that, Rolheiser says, is a curse. When one stifles the exuberant expression of life in children by harsh, demeaning or authoritarian remarks, that is a curse. When one makes belittling remarks such as, "Who does she think she is anyway?" or "You'll never amount to anything," those are curses. They do not affirm goodness or life; they belittle and demean it. These are strong statements, but they rang so, so true when I heard them.

An immediate application that came to me when I gained this insight about blessings and curses was how all of us in our Western culture are exposed to the curses of ageism from birth. With the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry and its seductive marketing and birthday cards that brand turning 50 as being "over the hill," we are bombarded with the message that young is good and old is bad.

This stereotyping of persons based on chronological age and unexamined myths related to chronological age is called ageism. This ism is the most pervasive ism in our society, beyond racism and sexism, and is the only prejudice to which every living person is subject — that is, if God grants one the gift of years.

If we remember God's affirmation of creation, that it is "good, very good," can we in good conscience disparage or deny old age, or any stage of life that takes us there? God did not say "youth is good, very good" and leave it at that. Rather, God looked at the work of creation as very good. All of it God sees as very good.

A major obstacle in honoring and cherishing every stage of one's life comes from the curses we have absorbed and internalized about aging. These curses that we carry present aging as circumscribed by illness, depression, loss and diminishment — all of which are severely distorted views, and in some cases just downright not true.

Curses create shame that might manifest itself in the feeling we are less because our hair is graying or thinning, or because we can't climb that last set of stairs without having to stop and catch our breath. Physical decline is inevitable, but normal physical decline is not illness. If we are not ill, we are just fine.

We must name the shame born of ageism: that internal feeling of being cursed, of being less than because we are older. It is an ungrounded shame, of course, making it all the more painful to bear.

Aging brings physical decline, but researchers tell us that some changes like the speed of our reflexes, for example, begin to decline — wait for it — around age 25! At the same time, there is a wealth of knowledge today about positive changes in our reasoning and wisdom due to physical changes in the brain, which we now know is an organ of great plasticity.

We women religious are a group of aging women in an aging and ageist society. How we view ourselves and others, as each of us wakes up each morning a day older, can change our society in exponential ways.

We have made very significant impacts in our culture before. Women religious forged ahead in obtaining higher education degrees, and in fields that were beyond typical women's areas of study.

Women religious created the largest private education system in the world, whose positive impacts are still seen today and referred to as "the Catholic school effect." Women religious created the face of healthcare in the United States.

In all of these achievements, sisters moved ahead in a man's world. Our own recognition of women's equality and acting on that recognition resulted not only in the advancement of our members and our mission, but also for the recognized equality of women everywhere.

What if sisters across the country started taking a serious look at aging, seeing it and understanding it as a natural process and definitely a time for further development? What if we read and discussed and debunked the stereotypes of old age? What if those discussions raised questions as to how we might live our lives in ways that are more age-equitable?

What if we began to really believe that our increasing median age holds many positive consequences? What if sisters would be known a hundred years from now for being pioneers in rejecting ageism and for beginning the work of liberating every person who is subject to ageism's curse?

What if we sisters began blessing ourselves and all whom we encounter, knowing that what we encounter and what we reflect is "good, very good"?

[Imelda Maurer is a Sister of Divine Providence, San Antonio Texas. With experience as a secondary classroom teacher and as a community organizer with sugarcane farmworkers and textile workers in Appalachia, she brings this same passion for advocacy to her present ministry, In Service to Our Own, a non-profit organization of which she is founder and director. Its vision is: "Bringing our rich legacy of ministry to others — competent, compassionate, creative, visionary and prophetic — to the ministry of service to our own." She holds a master's degree in gerontology and licensure as a nursing home administrator.]