One of the truly annoying factors associated with age discrimination is the amount of sympathy one gets for growing older. People, young and old alike, seem to fall into a range of responses from deniers (“Oh, you can’t be over 60!”) and pacifiers (“Well, you certainly don’t look 65 years old!”) to the sympathizers (“I am sorry. This must be hard for you.”) And even when the words are not quite as honest or forthright as these examples, the behaviors and tone of other expressions belie the fact of the bias.
Let me clarify for everyone: I am not wiser. I am likely more experienced. If I am smarter at times, it is not because of age, but because of ongoing learning. If I am slower, it may not be because I need a hand, but because I might be preoccupied. If I am impatient, it may not be because I am cranky, but because you are acting condescending. Somehow over the past 10 years I have increasingly been addressed as “sir.” Since I have not gone to England to receive such an honorific, nor have I joined the military, I am left with a sense that the title is age-related. I could assume that it is associated with some social learning that seeks to express respect for one’s elders. But, when I say to the person using it, “Please don’t call me ‘sir.’ I don’t prefer it.” I am often greeted with this defensiveness: “Oh, I say that to everyone.” Seriously? No. You. Don’t.
This sympathy for how hard life must be as an older person feels disingenuous to me. At the same time I am afforded something they see as respect for their elders, my night class gets scheduled in a building so far from street access that snow shoes or cross country skis should come with the course materials. I am given sweet comments in lilting tones by the physician’s receptionist while having me wait for 30 minutes for my scheduled appointment. I get cautionary notes when I need a cardiac check-up, but the cardiologist’s office cancels my appointments three times out of four. At least once a month I hear an expression that suggests that being old is hard but it is better than being dead.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am not bemoaning the state of aging or even discriminatory practices that surround it. I am giving examples that could be given about almost every age or demographic group. It is not so much that sympathetic expressions are bad or wrong or disgusting. It is just that I find them to be of limited utility.
What is the function of sympathy for the sympathetic?
I know when I feel sympathy for someone’s experience, I feel sorry for them. I do not know precisely what they are feeling, but I see that they are feeling. And, while I might not have had any experiences identical to theirs, I also am not taking the time, doing the work, or using my imagination to empathize by finding my own similar experiences. I have seen among my friends over the past several years the sense of isolation and loss that they have experienced when I decided to be sympathetic and not as empathetic as I had been for decades. I reasoned, possibly rightfully so, that the complete devotion to my spouse with several chronic health conditions required a more restricted field of empathy. I would not put myself in their place because I believe it was too important to be in my space with my spouse at that time. Empathy implies an active process that I felt I could not prioritize above the one to which I had committed.
On this very personal level, I can see the impact of my decisions about empathy that spanned five or more years. But on a more general level, how do the conscious or unconscious decisions we make about the span of our empathy limit the development and sustainability of community?