For a long time, I have had the point of view that one of the biggest problems of aging in our contemporary culture is that it leads most people towards a ‘state of resignation’. Resignation is the mood we can get caught in when we ‘give up’, when we stop living into the future as possibility. It is the mood of succumbing to the belief that circumstances are bigger than we are. It is a mood of defeat that generates comments like: “Why bother since we can’t do anything about it anyway?” It should not be confused with conscious acceptance of ‘the things I cannot change’. Acceptance (surrender) is voluntary; resignation is not.
The sheer demographic weight of the ‘Baby Boom’ generation has determined the larger social patterns and cultural conversations of our times—suburbia, rock ’n roll, the New Age, the civil rights movement, feminism, the transformation of business, and so on. These developments of the past 60 years or so correlate to the aging of the ‘Boomers’, and their concerns have become the focus for everyone in society (whether one is a Boomer or not).
This is not surprising. Any culture can be viewed as a ‘big, recurring and shared conversation’ about ‘the way it is’. If enough people share a particular interpretation and take on the same specific practices (including anything from fashion fads to political ideologies), then that particular conversation becomes the prevailing culture (‘the way it is’) for everyone. In my experience, this is the way culture works. A culture also either assimilates anything new into the prevailing ‘conversation’ to create more of the same or it mobilizes resistance to the new so that it is rejected outright. This tendency to either ‘homogenize’ everything into the current view or to reject anything that challenges conventional wisdom is why it is so difficult to change a culture—whether a corporate one within an organization or the broader culture or sub-cultures of our society.
My premise (and the basis of my concern) is that most of us become resigned when faced with larger social and philosophical issues. At some point, we just stop questioning, give up and learn to cope with ‘the way things are’. This is true in almost any aspect of our lives, and in my experience, can become more pronounced as we grow older. We lose our ambition, settle for whatever our circumstances and ‘comfort levels’ dictate, and try to enjoy the rest of our lives as best we can.
This is not bad as a matter of individual choice, but what if a critical mass of us just give up and become resigned within more or less the same timeframe? It seems to me that the culture or ‘space’ of the entire society then becomes one of resignation and defeat, with the predominant conversation becoming “Nothing makes a difference anyway, so why try?” This is the cultural conversation I encounter in other countries, particularly in South America, where the populations have more or less accepted their circumstances (for example, government corruption) as intractable facts of life that cannot be changed and that one must inevitably deal with when required. There are few or no conversations about changing the system or the culture—and certainly no conversations about changing themselves. People are just resigned to ‘the way it is’ and ‘the way we are’.
I predict that this same kind of generalized resignation is occurring here in North America. The primary symptom of this condition: large numbers of people are becoming spectators of their reality, rather than committed and conscious participants. What is particularly troubling about this prognosis is that resignation creates a closed system—we all become trapped in a vicious circle of not liking ‘the way it is’, while arguing (justifying) its persistence as ‘just the way it is’. How many conversations have we all been in where we talk about the state of the world, politics or environmental and social problems that conclude with everyone agreeing that the situation is terrible, tragic or just ‘too bad’? Do these conversations engage us, mobilize us, call us to action? In my experience, they rarely do—if ever.
I see this resignation growing in myself. I am not certain if it is an inevitable aspect of my own aging or just symptomatic of the times and the difficulty we have in comprehending the complexity and severity of so many concurrent problems. If it is my age, I am committed to stem my ‘internal conversation’ in the bud and, hopefully, find vehicles for staying involved and engaged in doing whatever I can to leave things better than I found them. At the same time, I am very respectful of the power of culture and conversation to co-opt even our best intentions.
For example, I was listening to the president’s press conference yesterday and his repeated justification for the war in Iraq. In the past, I would have felt some strong emotional response to what I consider to be a flawed policy and a dishonest administration’s attempts to dig itself out of a hole they have dug. The negative impact of the war on our economy, our sense of national unity, our credibility and image in the world, and, for many of us, our self-respect has been incalculable. As far as I can see, the positive impacts are negligible. And yet, like an alcoholic hitting bottom, President Bush insists that, “Things are still under control and getting better.” Today, I noticed I just felt resigned at such an incredible waste of energy, resources and lives on both sides of this conflict.
It is this feeling of resignation that scares me more than any particular problem or item on my list of intractable problems. It scares me in myself, as it influences my relationship to the world and to life in general. If enough of us buy into the “nothing-we-can-do” story, then we are in for some very dark times and prayer will be about the only option left to us. Unfortunately, if we are really resigned, we even give up praying. So I am taking my own resignation this morning as a wake-up call and a reminder.
The cultural drift will drive the future unless I and others choose a different interpretation, invent a different conversation about the way it is, and take action consistent with whatever vision or possibility we have for a future that is not predetermined by our past.
This is why I believe we must commit ourselves to transforming our culture of aging and to taking responsibility for the future—and why I am committed to creating the end of life having as much possibility as the beginning. I hope a lot of you will join me in creating this ‘new story’ about what it means to grow older and that, together, we can stay engaged, rather than becoming resigned at any level.