At a recent national conference on Aging in America, I was heartened by the collected energy of thousands of people focused on aging. In cafes and restaurants the excitement and enthusiasm crackled and bounced off the cavernous hotel lobby walls. Groups of attendees leaned in to each other to exchange ideas, notes, resources and strategies. I thought how wonderful it would be if we could infuse the general public – our culture- with the same degree of excitement about aging.
However, at this conference as at many others, I noted how numerous were the presentations about the problems and diseases associated with aging. How we love to solve problems. Nonetheless as a practitioner of positive aging I gravitated towards those that reinforced my outlook and practice. A very exciting one in particular was“Research to Reframe Aging”, a presentation by Nat Kendall-Taylor from Frameworks Institute http://frameworksinstitute.org.
Because we were at an aging conference, he addressed ageism and suggested ways to dismantle it through re-framing. The principles of reframing are valuable for any field from communicating about climate change to unpacking sexism and racism. The fields using reframing techniques are described on their website.
The work at the Institute is based on the notion that “people make decisions based on shared cultural values” and the research focus is on what the experts want to communicate, how they do so, what needs to change in the message to prompt the desired response. And, in order to make these changes, how to surface the cultural biases inherent in both the messages and the potential audience.
I want to share some of the ideas that were presented about ageism and the connection to my own work with cultural values. The reframing process brings attention to the way we think and talk about aging and how we practitioners and elders reinforce ageism in younger people by the language we use. Even when we advocate for new policies and programs we are activating bias in our audiences by “ageistic talk”.
Biases are explicit and implicit; explicit biases are those that are obvious to everyone (although sometimes not to ourselves); implicit biases are unconscious and based on unexamined assumptions. These implicit biases and assumptions determine how we hear, think and act in response. Our biases and assumptions are formed through interactions with family and cultural systems, such as education and the media, and begin at a very early age. Although I am familiar with these ideas from Transformative Learning and Deep Ecology there was much to learn from Framing Institute’s work.
So how do we reframe our messages?
By becoming aware of our reactions, the underlying values and then changing what is implicit in the messages we send. An example of one very useful for me is what Nat calls “Decline Fatalism”, that is the assumption that decline is inevitable. Using this as a lens is very useful in unearthing my unquestioned assumptions and habitual communications.
Decline Fatalism is prevalent in our culture and is reinforced by the majority of publicity about aging being fear-based and centered on the ravages of disease. On the other hand in California our tendency is to gather our elders in places where their vibrancy and joy for life go unseen. There are many people like my artist friend Leonard who, in his mid-nineties, confessed to joyfully waking up every day pronouncing “Good! Another day to paint ….and love my wife!”
Later in the conference I attended a group where we shared our passions and interests. I was impressed by a man who consults with start-ups while helping his daughter turn her draft-horse rescue project into an equine therapy center; he is also learning his fourth language, writes books and articles, travels, plans to go skydiving next month (not his first time) and pursues several other interests. Oh by the way he is in his eighties. He presents an exciting image of aging –
How can we use images like this to counteract all the medication ads in the media and all the other sources of the “age as a disease” myth?
I have been monitoring the insidiousness of Decline Fatalism and my own regular internal battles with it. How to counteract those messages? What ideas do you have?
Last year I asked a class of 10 year olds what they expected to see in a building with “senior” in its name. I heard them describe a convalescent hospital with people in wheelchairs staring into space and talking to themselves. It was with great delight that the seniors in the room showed the students the theatre, art studios, exercise room, computer lab in the building and then described their current commitments to writing, painting, acting, adventure travel, dancing and so on. One of the girls was amazed to discover that seniors text and tweet and Instagram just as she and her friends did.
We have to start dismantling ageism in younger and younger people if 10 year olds are already so deeply biased.
I have written –and consciously believe –that the elders in this country constitute a vast untapped resource of social capital, and now my questions are:
How to describe that in appropriately dynamic terms? Terms that will not reinforce the ageism in others (and self).
How to avoid describing those 80 and 90 year old men in incredulous terms? To forward emails with gorgeous fashionable older women as a novel idea?
Coming back to the individual – Nat Kendall-Taylor suggested calling ageing “Building Momentum”, which is a great description of the life experience skills and interests we are all accumulating. Building Momentum also implies that we keep moving forward not gazing with longing backwards to the past.
Building Momentum beats Decline Fatalism in my Book!
Like many of us, I have recently been forced to consider my values and those of the people who affect my life.
It is an important exercise to reflect on the values we hold in theory and those that guide our actions. We have been presented with a great many opportunities recently to think and feel about values.
It is not the easiest task to spontaneously list values, until they come into conflict. When our actions, or those of others, are called into question, the emotional heat we experience illuminates the values that are important.
I have assembled a list of values from various sources, to jog our thinking about what is important to each of us. Some are from business sources, some cultural, some political, to help readers bring your own to consciousness.
Literature tells us that values of the dominant culture/industrialized society are:
Domination, competition, expansion, unlimited growth, quantity, wealth, immediacy of gratification and as a consequence, short-term goals setting.
Contrast those with some from Human resources.com –
- Inner Harmony, Peace of Mind
- Personal Growth, Learning, and Self-Actualization
- Achievement /Accomplishment
- Financial Stability
A University Student Health Center staff developed the acronym “I CARE” as a tool for remembering and expressing values. In the final document, each word is defined by a series of value statements which describe how the value is expressed in their workplace.
Creativity, beauty, collaboration, responsibility, truth, loyalty, learning, family and friends, kindness, justice, fairness, interconnectedness, more-than-human nature, altruism.
What values will you include on your list? Which ones have guided your responses recently? I must confess that I have been surprised by some of my own reactions.
It is a difficult and sometimes painful experience to measure our actions and attitudes against the list of values we believe/think are important to us. It is so much easier to see the discrepancies in others. Good luck!
I am currently working on a project that surfaces cultural values and look forward to sharing those in another post.
With the change in world politics I feel it is really timely to open a discussion on values. The current political climate in the US particularly emphasizes the need for us to really examine our values and whether we either behave according to them or just pay lip-service and otherwise not think much about them.
Many daily individual and group decisions are dictated by our values, our intentions are shaped by them, they have the power to affect us emotionally. “Too often, the important choices in life are made on the basis of peer pressure, unthinking submission to authority, or the power of the mass media” (Simon, Howe and Kirschenbaum, 1995) And I would add, values that lay just beneath our consciousness.Without knowing what is guiding our behavior and emotional reactions, we are really blind to who we are.We are not able to reflect on what is steering us and as adults, choosing what values we want to hold onto – the ones we won’t compromise.
My visit to my childhood home last year has deepened my interest in the subject. I wonder what happens to immigrants to a country that emphasizes or re-prioritizes values differently? Several children of immigrants report that they felt their parents wanted them to adopt the values of this country in order to “get ahead.” I remember the struggles I had as a mother of growing children. Should I insist on following my traditional values in child-raising or prepare them to fit into the society in which we lived?
What are values anyway?
“Values shape our assumptions about the future, provide the content within which issues and goals are identified, and set standards for people’s behaviors and actions” (Juana Bordas – Salsa Soul and Spirit) that is, they both shape worldview and grow out of it.
Dictionary.com has many definitions – including the sociological one ” the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, or education, or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy.”
Satish Kumar (Resurgence Journal and Schumacher College, UK) differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic values. Extrinsic values are the ones promoted by our society- such as growth, profitability, targets. Intrinsic are values such as well-being, creativity, peace, health, service. Kumar expressed that extrinsic values need to grounded in intrinsic values, a focus on creativity, well-being, peace and health would add new and humane dimensions to profitability and growth, for example.
At this time it seems that an overriding value in the Global Economy is the amassing of wealth – by any means. Our children learn that money will solve any problems they will encounter and wealth is a guarantee of happiness. Is it?
A paper 20 years ago compared the economies of post-war Germany and the US. The difference in values of each country which underlay the economic progress was remarkable. The research reported that the German people are seen by their country as producers, whereas Americans are viewed and treated as consumers. And we are certainly directly or indirectly exhorted to shop and consume.
Consequently Germany looks after its people so they can keep producing -and universal health-care, working conditions, the environment are all better than most other industrialized countries.
It is different story for for consumers however, the more unhappy and unhealthy they/we are, the more we will consume: medications, therapeutic shopping, devices for our convenience, and all the gadgets we are bombarded with by the media. A psychologist at a conference that I attended took his colleagues to task for working with the advertising industry to design advertising that wounds. They are all paid much more than practicing the healing arts. We have to fight and demonstrate for access to health care for all, which is a right in many other countries.
When I think of the things I am most proud of in my life, that which I value – buying objects just does not compare with say, being instrumental in getting free food to low-income seniors or facilitating people to learn new skills that enhance their lives or helping newly hatched turtles to get to the ocean.
To the ideas of extrinsic and intrinsic values, I would also add cultural values – values that reaffirm and are reaffirmed by the traditions bequeathed to us. These often are ignored or dismissed when they could be seen as assets to society and to its individual members.
My own experience as an immigrant to several countries bears out the idea that we can and do lead double lives. For example: if we are raised in a culture where collaboration on everything is a way of life, we soon learn that collaboration on a math problem in school can be construed as cheating and punishment ensues. As children we learn to shape-shift or leave the arena where there is a cultural conflict. We experience our cultural identity being under attack. Or we decide that the values of our parents are old-fashioned and no longer relevant.
Some of the children of immigrants with whom I have conversed, say that after they have done as instructed and applied themselves to getting ahead in this country, they want to investigate the traditional values of their culture, they want to find out more about their cultural identity.
I know that when I recently visited the country where I was raised I felt like I had come back home to a part of myself that had never really belonged anywhere else. And it lay in the way people related to each other – and what was/is important to them in their lives.
California, where I now live, is home to people of many different national origins. It seems that exploring their traditional values, hearing about them as a way of understanding “the other”, understanding what our own values are, might just build a bridge of common ground between us.
Next post will contain lists of what academic research has determined to be the values of certain cultures to help us determine which ones are our own values.
A year ago Katharine Worth reviewed “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” for online Grist magazine. Well, she actually spent quite a bit describing Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia 32 years after her first appearance in the role. I want to share it.
“The more I thought about it later, the more I realized Carrie Fisher has been some kind of inadvertent navigational device for women who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Back then “she was the kind of ass-kicking, wise-cracking person you hoped you might grow up to be……”
Later on ” ….a little older, a little wiser and more worried about relationships than rebellion.”
Now “….she is everything rolled together: committed rebel, powerful professional, wise-but-loving ex, worried mother….Her life hasn’t turned out quite as she’d imagined, but she’s damn well going to keep trying to right it. Its all on her face…”
Katherine Worth continues by writing “I’ve had to actively remind myself a lot recently: Along with the accumulated space junk of life, the years you spend on this planet earn you more wisdom, and more confidence, and more knowledge, and more love than you ever thought you could hold. The more mountains you climb and deserts you traverse, and the more crumpled your map, the more you gain. ”
Its not a new idea but one we can all remind ourselves about. Thank you Katherine Worth, Carrie Fisher (RIP) and Grist.
** Irving Kirshner
It is not unusual for a cherished childhood dream to lose its magic in an adult world when adult experiences bleach out its wonder and, if the dream is realized, a small voice can echo its disappointment.
Living on the edge of the Bush in South America, my parents and I made regular weekend excursions by canoe up poetically named rivers – Lamaha, Demerara, Essequibo. Many times I had seen the red eyes in the night waters of cayman surrounding our canoe and spurring on my dad’s feverish attempts by flashlight to bring an outboard motor to life. I heard my mother’s whispered instructions to sit still and not fall in “We’d never get you back in time!”
The rippling curves of a water-snake were no stranger to me or the dark water sequined by the silver bellies of carnivorous fish. I loved how the tropical night drops in, with only a brief attempt at twilight, and the river becomes a silver path between the dark jungled banks, and the music of the Bush comes alive.
For all the magic of the rivers and the waters, there was always one place I longed to see. When I wished my child’s dream out loud, I was met with logical adult explanations that it was far too dangerous. The only way to get there was by bush-plane, an adventure in itself. In those days, bush planes were usually ancient work-horses piloted by Bush-pilots, whose reputations were devil-may-care at best, and who were a special breed. Some of them never returned from looking for tiny clearings in the dense trees. All of this meant that we were not going to travel by plane to see the place of my dreams. I packed them away for many many years.
Last month I joined a group of friends in traveling by bush-plane – clearly modern, well-maintained and reliable additions to what was now the tourist trade. We flew inland and left the flat farmed coast with villages and towns for a landscape tightly woven with treetops. Broad rivers intersected the forests and rare signs of human activity – occasional scars from gold mining or an odd tiny runway. Any other signs of human habitation were overlaid with the dense green tree-cover. I was finally, after a lifetime, going to see Kiateur. My stomach was tight with excitement and apprehension – was her beauty over-rated?
After an hour the pilot announced that we were approaching her attendant cloud-cover and mist and that, if we were lucky, she would shed her veils and make her appearance.
And there she was….
I stood on the overlook hundreds of feet above the river, listening to her roar, feeling her drops in my hair and knowing her power. My whole being was alive with sensations and an awareness of a strange gleam of hope.
And it was better than I could have known or imagined.
I returned from a trip to my childhood home- to a country, I discovered, which had marked me indelibly. I am still assessing the effects.
I had forgotten so much: how the color of the water in the rivers is like strong black coffee; how the very air comforts you, holding you in its warm moist embrace, clinging and mingling with your sweat until your skin seems to dissolve; how the rain comes when it promises, in large warm drops compelling you to push your face skywards in sheer pleasure; then, how the sun and air reclaim the moisture from the clothing pasted to your body -and suddenly you are dry.
I had forgotten the particular brand of Guyanese hospitality “Oh, you’re a friend of Frankie’s, come in, Darlin’, eat something, drink!” and the contagious talent for enjoying that very moment, each moment.
My eyes did not remember the impossible colors of country-houses, stitched together by the deepest greens of the rice fields and flowering bushes; the hand-sized butterflies so blue that you question your perceptions; the luminous miracle of the night-blooming water-lilies.
I had forgotten the audacious kiskadees – wings at the ready and little yellow heads bobbing, waiting to kidnap any unattended fruit from your plate; the night-long sawing of the beetles; the rain-song of the frogs; the joy of coaxing the manatee to the pond’s surface with clumps of grass and watching her nostrils plug and eyes squint as she slowly disappears below the surface with her feast.
I did not know how much I had forgotten!
I had been so dedicated to adapting, to becoming local to wherever I was living, that I had forgotten how deeply imprinted I am by Guyana, my childhood home.
After we suddenly left the country, I kept my heart-break at arm’s length. But who could have guessed at the unlikely healing of an unrecognized sorrow when silently propelling a kayak through a tunnel of trees amid mangroves teeming with life energy, in dark waters punctuated by flashing hints of the life below?….
What is a heart to do, but wake up when it is called?
Today on a neighborhood walk, I paused to watch an artist transform a grey utility box into a beautiful painting of luscious fruit.
“There is a story behind this” said Ricardo, the artist and he politely asked ” would you like to hear it? “ I love stories, especially ones accompanying paintings.
It went like this:
Ricardo talked of his friend who was very depressed and Ricardo expressed that he might be depressed also. “Oh no!” said the friend. “You are sad and that is different.” In their discussion he shared with Ricardo how there are some things we take in that can exacerbate depression – like alcohol – and others that can amplify joy, such as pomegranates and cherries.
Ricardo indicated the large and luscious pomegranates that he was painting on the box. “My friend lost his battle with cancer,” he paused as he choked with emotion, “and I am painting these fruits in his memory”.
Whenever I pass that box, with its stories, the painting is an emblem of friendship, it shares the teaching of the sick man and expresses the love of the artist who wants his friend to be honored and remembered.
I wonder about the stories held by other utility boxes. The touch of art on our lives………