Unless you’re an antiques dealer, the word “old” in America doesn’t inspire joy in most people. It’s not news to anyone that ours is a culture obsessed with youth. From advertising to celebrity culture, young people seem to make the whole world go round. We all sort of live in two different environments. There is the youth-dominated world of the media and consumerism, filled with glossy products to buy and near-naked women slapped on the advertisements to sell the stuff. And we also inhabit the real world, that place filled with electric bills and oil changes and other mundane, non-celebrity-culture stuff.
The word “old” doesn’t help sell new products, and it sure isn’t something anyone wants to be. And yet, like monkey feces, it happens, and for those of us lucky enough to make it past middle age, it happens to all of us.
For most people, being “old” means a whole lot of suck. There are plenty of physical changes: wrinkles and creaky joints. Cancer rates increase. So does heart disease. Stroke. Sleep cycles change.
But the worst thing to deal with seems to be the mental changes, especially those surrounding the loss of identity: loss of work, of loved ones, and the familiarity of your environment. The world keeps right on changing around you, and it’s easy to lose your bearings.
Some people never turn “old” because they never lose their identity. They just keep making new ones, changing who they believe they are right along with their bodies. Life might hit them with cancer, with the death of their loved ones, with terrible disabilities. And yet they find things to keep smiling about. They keep their verve. They keep living.
We often say these people are “young at heart” because they have the fearlessness of teenagers and the wrinkles of experience. These people rock.
And then there are the actual “old people.” The aging folks most young people do everything they can to avoid. These people are bitter. Resentful. Hateful. They feel ugly, outmoded, and slow. They think the world’s out to get them. They are critical of appearances, which fuels their pettiness. With every loss they suffer, their identity narrows, rather than expands. In short, they cannot embrace change.
In writing terms, these people possess all the traits of antagonists. Anyone who wants to write a good book has to write a good villain, and the rigid fearfulness that can set in with old age is the stuff great villains are made of.
Villains are villainy because they lack compassion. They lack empathy. At any stage in our lives, a human can lose compassion and empathy, and at any stage in our lives, we can gain them both back. It’s one of the most fascinating things about life.
I’ve never written a villain as an old person before. (That seems so mean, doesn’t it? Old people have enough to deal with without being portrayed as villains, for Pete’s sake.)
But right now in my life, I have an old person who has decided to be my antagonist. A person I have only known a few months, but who has nevertheless decided that I am the enemy. Bitterness? Check. Resentment? Check. Hatred? Check. In this person’s eyes, I am wrong, everything I say is wrong, and meetings seem to exist for the sole reason of publicly pointing out how wrong I am.
It’s an interesting fact that some people decide that being the villain of the story gives them power, and that only this power can fuel their identity. Antagonism is always a choice, and this old, wrinkled curmudgeon in my life has definitely made a choice to be my antagonist.
Villainy all comes down to identity though. Where people decide their power will come from. Whether it’s the pretty girl in tenth grade who cyber-bullies her peers, or this wrinkled curmudgeon full of bitterness, both have decided that compassion is a weakness embraced only by fools.
I don’t ever want to reach a point where my wrinkles and creaky joints fill me with bitterness. Change is always hitting everyone, all the time. The benefit of aging is that you accumulate the psychological resource of experience, and experience can help you adjust to the change in your life.
My experience has helped me look at the pretty girl who cyber-bullies her peers and the old curmudgeon full of self-righteousness and realize that they are the same person. They are both people who’ve made the same choice about power, and how best to acquire it. Their tactics are identical, even if the logistics are different. The more villainous their behavior, the more powerful they feel, and the stronger their identity becomes.
They are slaves to their egos, and that’s the only way I can maintain any compassion for them. Their egos have hijacked their brains, and they are enslaved. No one likes to be enslaved. Especially when you can’t even realize you’re a slave.
For writers though, this is the paydirt of the psyche: understanding the choice to be bad. How it all comes down to identity. Who we want to believe we are, and therefore become.