Have you noticed that older people seem to be losing their "filters?” It seems like little "watch-its" or "careful-nows" no longer flutter across minds before some mouths open to say things that hurt other peoples' feelings.
"What's the matter with Kansas?” asks one author... or “...with liberals?" or “...with white people?"
I want to know what's the matter with old people?
Lest I be accused of ageism, I admit that I, too, have uttered obnoxious, unbelievable things that have actually cleared the room. Referring to New Zealand returning thousands of hectares of land to native Maori tribes after I had just finished reading Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel,” I said I believed people who took land by force should keep it. I really didn't know exactly what I was talking about, but given the time, the place, and my son's friends, I shouldn't have said that.
Here are some of the things I've heard older people say:"You're fat, but not as fat as you used to be."
"Your nose is red."
"Why on earth would you be a vegetarian?"
"Now that I've finished the salad, I'm full. I want to go home."
"You never should have sent that kid to college---it didn't do any good. Waste of money."
"Well, I guess you like your hair the way it is."
Some statements are clearly provocative:
"Tell me the truth, don't you finally agree Obama is a horrible president?" "My German friends told me World War II was really all the Jews' fault." "Muslims are taking over everything, just look around."
"Obamacare is going to ruin my Medicare. They'll have a board to decide if I get a free scooter or not."
And, "What we really need is a lot more Christians in government."
Well. All these statements can be confronted and quickly dealt with by making a few salient points. But even though I'd be quoting facts, it would come off as if I was just saying what I thought, right? I'd be playing the game. The terrorists would win.
Having spent many formative years at Chicago's comedy club, The Second City, I know it's possible that these folks are just trying to be funny. Saying what you really think is a tried and true comedic strategy. Still, I'm not laughing and I have come to the conclusion that people who try to verbally provoke me are suffering from a combination of social and physiological disorders.
Ms. Audrey M. Cotherman, Ed.D, a self-described, "near-elderly" columnist for the Casper Journal in Wyoming was thinking about the same thing in March. "Elderly people appear to say anything they want to say because they can, and they can because they’re free of all the restrictions they had when they were trying to make something of themselves. They no longer seek wealth or fame or even notoriety, and they’re no longer trying to get a good job or a promotion. And they now know that all these things were transitory and that their next promotion is in the hands of God." http://www.casperjournal.com/news/opinion/editorial/article_e2c7b6ed-49cf-5528-9dea-083f30368433.html
Ms. Cotherman goes on to explore many ways people are socialized to "not" say what they think. Many of our parents favored European (Victorian) upbringing which emphasized a code of decorum that elevated class positioning. If you only mentioned sex, money, politics or religion in roundabout ways, you were perceived as a better and financially more successful person. Nice people don't talk about how much things cost. Old people do. The best people don’t talk about bodily functions. But old people seem to relish jokes about bowel movements.
I could go on.
As we grew up, we learned to empathize--to consider someone else's feelings--when we opine. We didn't start out this way. Babies don't have any filters. They spend a couple of years not being able to say exactly what they want--and once they do, watch out.
One of the funniest little bits I've seen lately was a YouTube showing a father recreating an actual conversations with his two-year-old daughter, only an adult man(with a five o'clock shadow)was playing his little girl.
When she wants to have her mother all to herself, she tells her Dad flat out to go away. She (or, the man playing her) says that her mother is not his wife, she's the princess. And look how much fun she and the princess are having if only he would go away.
Matthew Clarke's video is hilarious partly because it shows so clearly that if adults acted like two-year-olds all the time, with no filters at all, they would simply have no friends. None. It shows how radically socialized we all are--to avoid confrontation, cater to others' proclivities or prejudices, follow the rules, and to not rock the boat. Two-year-olds don't know yet exactly what will tip the boat over and they're testing the waters all the time. Along the way they learn how to not say everything that comes to mind. And that seems to work--for 50 or 60 years.
Then how come some of us just don't care anymore?
I asked a neurologist friend, Dr. Ed Olson, if there was a physiological reason why some old people get cranky and just blurt stuff out. When old Mr. Wilson runs out his front door waving his cane at little kids, telling them to get off his lawn, is it because something changed in his head?
Turns out there are lots of reasons. According to Dr. Olson,
“...as entertaining as it is to believe that people are simply acting outrageously because of their station in life or active decisions, there is good research that has identified physiologic reasons for such behaviors.
"As you wondered, the prefrontal cortex is where one localizes such behavior...They allow for great executive powers, as they are called, with decision-making, judgment, working memory, among other crucial functions, subserved there."
"Babies," he said, "and adults with dementia, strokes, tumors, hemorrhages, inflammatory conditions, metabolic problems and others--can all have dysfunction of the frontal lobes which can lead to the sort of colorful behavior you have seen. Babies become properly myelinated and their minds mature..."
Myelin refers to brain connections, which seem to increase as socialization proceeds and impulse controls begin to function fully. And researchers are now saying that this impulse control is often not fully functional until kids are in their early 20s.
So, when a friend or family member verbally assaults us out of the blue, what to do? Knowing that hardly anybody changes anybody else's opinion, seems like it's better just to step sideways and let them hit the wall. They really may not be able to stop themselves from saying what they think. Or what they "think" they think. But we can, right? For now. Me, personally? I'm never going to make that mistake again. I'm never, ever going to say what I think.