I recently was part of a panel for the West Vancouver Community Foundation. The meeting was geared to seniors and was titled Maintaining Vigor, Vitality and Virility. On the panel with me were my colleagues Larry Dian, geriatrician and Stacy Elliot, sexual medicine expert. The well-known Dr Art Hister moderated. The program was screened on Shaw tv on Sunday 15th April. This and the next posting are a variation of my presentation.
There has been a drastic shift in western culture away from traditional reverence for the elderly towards a hyperbolic infatuation with youth. The explosion of cosmetic surgery is but one instance that highlights the intolerance of age and the craven yearning for youth. Estimates of the rise of cosmetic surgery in the US shows that in 2002 nearly 7 million cosmetic procedures took place, an increase of 23% since 1997; botox treatments increased by 2400% over the same period. Our culture now regards successful aging as an economic disaster waiting to happen, with dire predictions about decreasing numbers of young people expected to support increasing numbers of elderly.
Why, at precisely the time that society has conquered so many of the threats to successful aging, has regard for the elderly been so unceremoniously supplanted by juvenocentricism, the quest for perpetual youth? While there are surely many different lenses through which to examine this intriguing phenomenon, let’s look at it through the particular lens of self-esteem.
In an as yet unpublished manuscript, a chapter of which can be found on this website at http://www.borntobeworthless.com/the-book/, I outlined the source and purpose of self-esteem. I showed how low self-esteem makes us all reliant on others rather than on our own selves as the most important way to experience positive self-worth. This reliance on others instills in us the desire to please others in order to earn their regard, which is the source of our self-worth. It is through this that we learn the norms, codes, rules and laws required for adaptive social living. Low self-esteem is an internal psychological driver of social learning and promotes and facilitates social cohesion, which is vital to group and social survival.
This means that early on in our lives we learn through trial and error, the behaviors and attitudes that are effective in making others care for us and care to value us. Each of us habituates to the ways of being that succeed in making others value us and eventually a stable state of being emerges that we call our personalities. (This may include unstable personalities, i.e., ways of being that are less successful at ensuring a steady supply of positive self-worth from others). For most of human history, the conditions under which we learned to successfully make others value us remained constant.
Most humans lived in small communities, traveled little, and didn’t encounter many people other than those in their or a few neighboring villages. This meant that the others who provided external sources of self-worth were well known and remained constant. What and how things were done remained constant too. The ways we lived and met our survival needs was unchanging. Hunting, gathering and farming methods stayed much the same from generation to generation. Technology advanced imperceptibly slowly if at all. And the holders of the required knowledge were obviously highly valued, and highly regarded and revered.
In the circular universe of the pre-electronic age, where yesterdays methods were the surest guarantee for todays and tomorrowsoutcomes, the holders of yesterdays knowledge were invariably those who had been around and lived longest, i.e. the elders. Senior members of the group had the experience and therefore the knowledge about how to do things in ways that gave the best chances for adaptive living. By extension and perhaps as a way of reinforcing the idea that the repositories of survival wisdom were the elders, often those even more elderly than the elders, the ancestors became objects of reverence and even worship. The almost universal practice of reverence for the past and for tradition was for countless generations a means of validating the successful survival strategies of the past as the most reliable guide for the present and the future.
In the next post I’ll discuss how life in the informational age is different and how this affects those whom our culture esteems.