Senior-Citizen Fear, the Center Cannot Hold
I have these recurring variations of the same dream. I am running down a school corridor, desperately trying to find my next class or I am in front of a class that is paying no attention to me. In yet another panic-dream, I am a substitute teacher in a Chemistry class (I was an English teacher).
And then there’s the dream where I constantly punch in the wrong phone number of someone I am frantically trying to call or I am darting through mazes of streets trying to find a relative’s apartment.
I realize that each of these dreams contains an element of eleventh-hour powerlessness, of being stuck in drying cement or frozen in four-feet of ice. But I am also convinced that these dreams reach down into the deepest cave of primal fear—the same kind of fear in those dreams where I am attacked by a cat or feel the cold edge of a sword or knife plunged into my stomach.
Fear. We all have it. The panic after a doctor tells us the cancer biopsy was positive. The anxiety of a parent who receives a phone call from an emergency room that a teen-age son has been in a motorcycle accident. The edgy, heart-pounding moment right before open-heart surgery. The fear after a son says, “Dad, you really can’t drive anymore.”
Fear. I know I experience it when I am in a city or a country road, and I’ve lost all sense of direction. I also know that my heart-beat rattles faster as I’m experiencing a “rush,” that feeling that the world is moving at supersonic speed, that everything is out of control, that I have no grounding, no center.
Lately, I’ve been twittering some twitter-friends about another kind of fear. The fear that many of us seniors are experiencing that the world is going faster than any of us can keep with— cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, airport scanners, on-line banking, Blue-Ray, Kindle, Nook, GPS, Amazon.com., Wikileaks.
To avoid the fear of being in over our heads, and, of course, our reactionary fear of change (we like what’s familiar, if you young’uns haven’t noticed), some of us have chosen to stalwartly hold our ground. We just won’t buy any of those damned “newfangled gadgets.” Or, as my sister-in-law often asks, “What the hell ever happened to the ‘on’ and ‘off’ buttons?” when she looks at her dashboard.
I have to admit, however, that Twitter seems to work for many of us seniors—maybe because we are alone a lot or are stuck in a snow-belt apartment in the winter. And many of my older friends have taken to Kindle and Nook because you can enlarge the print.
Nevertheless, there is, I believe, a deeper, existential fear among the older generation, like myself, that, as the poet once said, “the center cannot hold.” There is a profound sense, among many seniors, that there is no lighthouse of certainty about anything anymore. Everything is changing, and I mean everything. And at a faster rate than most of us can humanly absorb.
Throughout most of my adult life, I had what I would call “certain certainties.” When I read a textbook, I believed it. Textbooks, after all, were all written by experts. If you wanted to learn how to conjugate “aimer” in the present tense, you just did the exercises in the textbook. You mastered it. Case closed.
When I watched Walter Cronkite or the Huntley/Brinkley news hour, I just believed they were asking the right questions, giving us the lowdown, sifting through the false sludge to give us the shiny nuggets of truth we would need until the next night. Like the “New York Times,” they were the gatekeepers; and gatekeepers I thought, would never deceive.
And then cable and the Internet arrived. Then Google. Then Wikipedia. Then Facebook. Then Twitter. Then Links. Then Wikileaks.
And now that Wikileaks is taking on the established gatekeepers of truth (governments and corporations), we old timers wonder if there is any truth out there that can be believed.
Because of all the new Internet sources of information and diverse communities, everyone now seems to be an expert. In the Internet age, facts are at our fingertips. “Google it,” as they say, if you don’t know the answer. “Check your Blackberry.” Want to see a rerun of Hussein’s execution? “YouTube it.” How about your favorite song, “Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page or Patsy Cline or Bonnie Raitt or Eva Cassidy?”
“Eva Who?” asked one of my friends. “Never heard of her.”
It may seem odd to the younger generation that the seniors among us are often baffled by all the available information. It may seem even stranger to fathom how many of us are feeling suffocated by the sheer density and speed of facts, opinions, analyses, viewpoints, spins, slants, opposing voices barraging us every day.
To many of us, the entire social media venues, the millions of google entries, and the sheer number of cable channels are nothing more than overload, the new multi-voiced Babylons. Noise and more noise. Everyone shouting to get at the head of the line.
Are we wiser for for all of that? I don’t think so. We may be given more options, but increasing the choices, like the three-hundred private health insurance plans available to Congress, or the rows upon rows of breakfast cereal in a supermarket, we can drown with indecision and confusion in the large sea of all those choices.
Maybe you live in a house where your refrigerator door is filled with messages. You’re having a couple of relatives over for dinner. Uncle Frank starts choking. You rush to the refrigerator door to find the information about what do to when someone is choking. You rip off the smiley faces, the GP’s phone number, the message about the next choir rehearsal, the Lipitor prescription, the phone number for the baby sitter, the faded number of the school principal, the photo of your mother-in-law at your niece’s confirmation.
Uncle Frank is still choking.
That’s the scene that is so reminiscent of the modern-day new technology. Our lives are often frantic enough without all the voices out there saying to us, “get this,” “buy this,” “listen to this message,” “did you know this?” “get the new up-dated version,” “buy this new software program,” “contact your Congress man or woman,” “subscribe to this Newsletter.”
I think I can speak for many of my senior contemporaries. The frantic tone of the fear-ridden dreams we occasionally have are now, ironically, being acted out more and more in our real lives. Truth, now, is beginning to imitate fiction. Reality, as we know it, seems now to be nothing more than an imitation of a nightmare of howling wolves offering us alternative voices, opposing views, new products, and new prophets. Nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
What happened to that one bed-sheet of truth that needed just a few washings a month. Or those three shirts that we could alternate to give us some variety? Or the old car that you drove until it died?
In losing the old freedoms we had to hang on to a few things that were certain, we are now deluged with so many possibilities that we end up, in my judgment, in a permanent state of high anxiety, of a deep-seated fear that everything we own will be outdated, irrelevant, not up-to-speed, discontinued.
Many of us know, of course, that life is all about change. And many of us have learned that inclusiveness is a far more noble moral choice than exclusivity. We may not be totally comfortable with the number of new foreign voices and accents in our backyard, but we know that our lives can only be richer for the cultural diversity.
That being said, on many levels, I believe we are living in the new dream: the nightmare of many choices, new voices, new solutions, new gadgets, new perceptions, new software. And, many of us suspect that, in our old age, we will be placed on the shelf of irrelevancy in the same way that an old, slow computer will be quietly discarded to the recycle bin.
And we are afraid.