After a time I couldn’t bring myself to say Happy New Year — because I am so darned unhappy about the election of Donald Trump and deeply saddened by his continued assault on just about every value and principle I hold dear — I am now resolving to switch gears, looking to focus on winning back our lives rather than on the losses we’ve endured. Two stories in the New York Time’s Review section New Year’s Day prompted this first post of 2017.
First, Lisa Feldman Barrett writes, “How to Become a ‘Superager.” Aarrghhh. Granted the neuroscience is fascinating, linking emotional and cognitive integration and nourishment in the brain to “successful aging.” But first Barrett references “the usual mental difficulties of old age,” with old age applying to “the people in your life who are 65 or older.” Decline. Loss. Old at 65. I started writing The Third Third nine years ago to say the exact opposite: that the third third of one’s life is NOT Old Age and its inexorable decline, but a newly-defined, important, and often creative new life-stage. And further, that having matured beyond the Baby Boomer psyche (one hopes), aging need not be a competition; it need only be an act of personal fulfillment, an enduring human quest for meaning and purpose.
And yet, here it is, Day One of 2017, and we’re being lectured: “Take up a challenging activity, Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work the brain. . . . If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Loss. What have we gained? I have no doubt the brain science is sound; it’s just that the remedies are under-developed and limiting. Folks have been touting this kind of senior personal improvement plan for decades. Rather than being about loss (even if it’s about staving off loss), the message should be about the abundant potential all humans — of any age — possess to engage the world intellectually and emotionally. Think of the gift we might be in this world if we used that potential not to win a Superager Trophy at the next dinner party by announcing we’re learning Mandarin Chinese and taking up the piano, but rather to enrich the conversation around the table with honesty, thoughtfulness and perspective honed by experience. We must start framing the conversation differently.
Then there’s Susan Chira’s front-page story in the Sunday Review, headlined “What Women Lost,” which smacks of even more negativity. It posits that whereas Hillary Clinton’s election as the first woman President of the United States was to have been the triumphant exclamation point for our women’s and feminists’ history; her loss is decidedly feminism’s loss, too. It is as if the issues that have defined the modern-day women’s movement — reproductive rights, women’s health, workplace opportunity and advancement, the fight against sexual harassment — have been repudiated by the so-called Trump mandate (and No, it was not a mandate), and will now be ignored. The fear is real, but then Chira rehashes every indictment of and each internecine struggle within the women’s movement as we have known it these last 50 years, essentially snatching defeat from every victory we might have enjoyed. Those victories can seem small and discrete, sometimes because they didn’t serve all women all the time, sometimes because no matter how far we came, any finish line was always further. And we didn’t elect the first woman president in our lifetime. So the critique begins: they call the leadership “elitist,” using that old white man’s game of setting the opposition against each other so that they can’t move against you. True, the women’s movement leaders were “elites,” but chiefly because they had the privilege of time to think about these issues and shape their ideas into a movement when their sisters lived lives of no choices — no choice about going to work because otherwise there would be no food on the table, no roof over their families’ heads, no choice to plan their families when neither birth control nor abortions were accessible or affordable, no option, no power, no energy to question or challenge the patriarchy they served at home, in the churches, at work, in their communities. The movement’s leaders were leaders, imperfect, of course, but not socio-economic elitists or racial bigots. Perhaps none of them espoused causes, advocated, protested, and/or acted in precisely the way any of us might have chosen. Yet they did it, they created and fueled a movement that at the very least redefined women’s rights as human rights and tried to demonstrate their impact on the economy and the social fabric of this country. Sometimes they won lawsuits and Supreme Court cases and equality, but then, too, time and time again, they lost. But, as Anna Quindlen reminded a roomful of Planned Parenthood supporters after the election, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got on with their work — because that’s what women do, what women have to do, what women always do. So, rather than reiterate the imperfections of any campaign — Hillary’s, Planned Parenthood’s, the National Organization of Women, the Women’s Movement itself — Susan Chira could have, instead, reported more clearly on where the movement goes from here. How do we capitalize on the progress that has been made? How do we enhance the effectiveness of our message and our advocacy? How do we “Go Positive,” and avoid a “resistance only” approach that gives power over our agenda to those who disagree with us? Where do we take our fight? Again, as this new year begins, I prefer to focus far less on what we’ve lost than on what we have to gain by engaging the vast potential of all women. After all, we comprise 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, and our history is still being written — with or without that exclamation point.