In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.
Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite.
The AARP Magazine celebrates celebrities. The cover of the current (December 2015/January 2016) issue features a 70-year-old Diane Keaton wearing a stylish hat, a sporty black jacket, and an oversized pinstriped shirt, tucked into her loose-fitting jeans. Thin as a stalk of asparagus, she is smiling broadly. Should that image entice us, we can open the magazine to Meg Grant’s feature article, where we learn that Diane is “always, literally, on the move . . . In addition to acting, she writes. She takes photographs. She sings!” In a sidebar, Diane also gossips about “her leading men,” among them Robert de Niro, Warren Beatty, and Al Pacino. Not lacking in financial resources, Diane likes to indulge her “passion for serial nesting,” and so far she has “renovated a least a dozen houses.” Her compulsion to keep creating new homes is, in Keaton’s words, “a fantasy of [creating] a new you.”
Perhaps there are well-heeled readers, themselves intent on creating new you’s, who find such stories inspiring. But for those of us who are neither rich nor famous nor in a position to experiment with serial nesting, the emotional impact is likely to be otherwise. Not only do the annals of celebrity culture invite comparison and its attendant envy. They can also stir the latent fear that our own lives have never been and will never be the equal, in glamour, wealth, mobility, and fulfillment, to those of the stars. One is almost relieved to learn that Burt Reynolds, at the age of 79, “has no woman in his life.” Perhaps he should give the footloose Diane a call.
If the AARP Magazine sets our unconscious fears in motion, the AARP Bulletin shifts them into overdrive. The lead story in the current Bulletin concerns “New Scams to Avoid.” Prominent among them are phone scams offering technical support for non-existent computer viruses. But we should also watch out for “chip card” and IRS imposters eager to gain access to our financial records and our life savings. No doubt such perils are real, and AARP is doing a service to potential victims of fraud and corporate manipulation, but the high concentration of such warnings in a small space, cheek by jowl with ads for hearing aids, Safe Step Walk-in Tubs, “Risk-free Cellphones,” and Medical Alert monitors, tends to unnerve rather than reassure the patient reader. And, not incidentally, it also conditions us to keep reading the AARP Bulletin, lest we miss reports on the latest menacing news.
How refreshing, by contrast, are Seamus Heaney’s well-chosen words, which neither fuel our illusions nor scare us out of our wits. “Inevitable” derives from the root evire, which means “shun” or “avoid,” and the closest synonym to “inevitable” is “unavoidable.” “Attenuate” derives from the Latin attenuare, which means “to make thin.” As electronics technicians know, an attenuator is a device that diminishes the amplitude of a sound without distorting its waveform. To describe the changes that come with advancing age as “inevitable attenuations” is to tell, however abstractly and obliquely, the unvarnished truth. And like the old Zen saying “The elbow does not bend outward,” the effect of Heaney’s phrase is strangely tonic. Bringing us home to the reality of our lives, Heaney’s words free us from denial and liberate us from delusion. And paradoxically, by returning us to full awareness, they open us to our own boundless nature, in a way that a hundred tales of happy celebrities could never do.