Aging and the Dignity Society Offers

Haile Selassie and the Aging ProcessI wish I believed in God. If I did, I would have constant conversations with him like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Except that I wouldn’t be so respectful. Here’s the thing: God is either not all that nice or a total incompetent. I could deal with God being Jacques Clouseau — an idiot who bungled his way into getting a universe to exist. But I would tend to think of God as not nice. What’s more, any evidence that exists indicates that God would be something of a cruel practical joker. I’ve been thinking about this with regard to aging.

For me, aging has been overall a good thing. But I haven’t gotten old enough to hit the cliff of cognitive decline that is likely coming my way in two decades. We all see certain types of gradual cognitive decline as we age. I’ve very much seen it. I’m not as crisp a thinker. But I’ve become a far better “fuzzy computer.” And given my natural gifts have never been in the area of raw computation, this hasn’t been bad. But a sudden drop in my ability to suss out a passage of Kant would be horrible. But oh, how I can image it would make God laugh!

Dealing with my father’s illness over the last few days has gotten me thinking more about this. My father has always been a proud and independent man and aging has only made him more so. I know that it bothers him to find his body rebelling against him. In this case, there is something wrong with his kidneys — perhaps an infection — that is causing him great pain. But otherwise, he is, at 83 years, more healthy than I am. Pain and neglect should not be the reward for putting up with this universe for eight decades.

The Aging of Haile Selassie

As I sat at the San Francisco VA Medical Center late last night, I read Peter Schwab’s Haile Selassie I: Ethiopia’s Lion of Judah. I’ve become a bit obsessed with Haile Selassie recently. He ran Ethiopia from about 1916 to 1974. He was Emperor from 1930. And he was kind of like a god. And to the Rastafari, he is literally so. But Schwab described how Haile Selassie was deposed. He was 82 at that time, and I’m sure that his age had something to do with him losing his grip on power. Now Haile Selassie wasn’t a perfect man, but he did do much good, and it is hard not to find this description poignant:

It must have been devastating. This proud, noble man, used to having his orders followed and being in total control, comfortable with all the major leaders of the twentieth century, now surrounded by troops and being escorted away from all the power and authority he knew. Ramrod straight, dignified, peering into the distance past the horrors of the moment, he did as he was told. With his cape over his shoulders he walked outside. There in the driveway was an old blue Volkswagen. Told to get in, he adamantly refused. How could the emperor, he thought, get into this car when he was accustomed to solid gold horse-drawn carriages, Rolls Royces, and Mercedes-Benzes? The symbols of monarchy must be retained. But choice was no longer an option. At gunpoint he placed his five-foot-four-inch frame into the back of the car and sat as erect as ever.

Obviously, one can see the fall of Haile Selassie as simply what happens to powerful people. He was, after all, an emperor in exile during the Italian Fascist occupation of World War II. But I see it about aging mostly. Life is an arc and we end it much as we start it: helpless. But as a civilization, we have the power to push back against whatever you want to call it: the lack of God’s competence, goodness, or existence. We have the power to allow the old to have the dignity they have earned throughout their lives — whether they be Haile Selassie or my father.