Welcome to the 40s," a friend said to me on my birthday two years ago, "the old age of youth and the youth of old age." From where I stand, I can see the peaks of 50, 60, and 70 ahead.
This society has many assumptions and expectations about how people should behave in their middle
and older years. In terms of social and political convictions and activism, it is assumed that we will mellow—we can have opinions but not passions. It is assumed that we will abandon idealism, take fewer risks, grow more materialistic, and slowly drift from the margins to the center, until one day we find ourselves smack in the middle of the road.
I know the pressures in the middle years are real, and I do not want to minimize them. Some of us have children—we worry about them and need to provide for them, we plan for our older years, we seek greater material comforts for our weary bodies. But I want to make a strong case for radical aging, or aging as radicals, because it will change our society, enrich our community, amaze our children, and do our own souls some good.
I want to be clear: My message is not to abandon all comforts, live in a hovel, be virtuous and miserable. Social movements do not need deprived, bitter, self-righteous, pseudo-martyrs. But social movements do need people who keep their edge, their sense of moral outrage, and their willingness to do brave, unpopular things as they grow grayer and thinner on top.
We need to age with our visions, ideals, and dreams intact. They may change over the years, but that does not mean they have to be muted or compromised. And we need to hold on to our anger—it can help keep us sharp, motivated, and non-complacent.
I remember that following her 50th birthday, Gloria Steinem was asked by a reporter if she thought that she would mellow in the years ahead. "Oh, no," Gloria answered immediately, "feminists get more radical as we age."
And I love the story about A.J. Muste who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House night after night with a candle—sometimes vigiling alone. A reporter interviewed him one evening as he stood there in the rain. "Mr. Muste," the reporter said, "do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" A.J. responded, "Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me."
In my community, we have our own local heroes. I remember when Frances Crowe, then in her mid-60s, and I went together to the Women’s Peace Encampment at Seneca Falls in 1983. We planned to engage in civil disobedience during a big rally at the Seneca Army Depot, but when we got there the gates were closed and the chain-link fence was high and intimidating.
During the rally, women started scaling the fence one by one and going over. I looked at Frances and said, "We have to do it." "You go first," Frances said. "I’ll watch, and then follow you." I climbed up, and over I went.
Then slowly Frances scaled the fence, and the crowd was hushed. As she went over the top, a young woman yelled out, "Look, that grandmother is going over." Frances gracefully climbed down the other side into the waiting arms of her arresting officer.
I believe that young people need to see grandmothers climb over chain-link fences. Enough strong role modeling shows our children that growing older does not simply mean growing paunchier. We can raise generations of people who adopt social and political activism as a lifestyle for a lifetime, not as a passing fad, a phase, or a stage.
A QUESTION ON MY mind is this: What keeps our feet to the fire? As we age, what will help us counter the tendencies to become more effective consumers and less effective rebels?
Each of us looks into our own heart and finds some answers. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends—or Quakers—I am inspired by the long tradition of Quakers who have refused to abide by the conventions of the day. Because of their religious beliefs, early Quakers did not adhere to accepted customs, they chose to defy immoral laws, and they rewrote church protocol. In short, Quakers have a long and proud history of not fitting in.
As I approached 40, I experienced a deepening of my faith and, to my surprise, a renewed interest in Quaker history. I am uplifted and renewed by the stories about Quakers such as Laura Haviland, who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad; Elizabeth Fry, who worked tirelessly for prison reform; Rufus Jones, whose Quakerism combined mysticism and practicality; and the famous William Penn, who, far from being the cliche Quaker of downcast eyes and sealed lips, loudly declared his beliefs and was even brought to trial on the charge of causing a riot. Now that gives me hope!
Let’s try to age in such a way that our lives are more about social change than social comfort, more about doing good than doing well, and more about resistance than retreat.
ANDREA AYVAZIAN is an anti-racism educator with Communitas, a non-profit organization in Northamp-ton, Massachusetts, providing training and consultation to other non-profits on dismantling racism.