King Lear and the Silver Tsunami

03/26/2015 06:20 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
Javier Encinas via Getty Images

I'm no Shakespearean. Until recently, I'd only read King Lear once. This happened in college, in the late 1960s, very early one morning, hours before I was to submit an essay entitled -- if I recall correctly- - "King Lear and the Tragedy of Time." There I sat, hunched over The Collected Works, squinting at its endless microscopic print, staving off sleep with cigarettes, battering the keys of my wobbly Underwood. By dawn, I'd produced a few pages of what I suspect was nonsense, but which somehow sufficed for a passing mark. After that, I declared myself an economics major, quit smoking, graduated and ran off to law school.

Then, for 40-odd years, I busied myself with family and career, and never gave the old King more than a passing thought. His story, I believed, had nothing to do with mine. If pressed, I might have said, Sure, I know that one: There's this 80-year-old guy, see, and he's senile, and one day his daughters abandon him, and so he wanders around the countryside for a bit, and then he dies.

One of the great pains of aging comes when you discover how much time you wasted being wrong. One of its greatest pleasures may follow this -- when you see there's still time to change. Of course I was wrong about Lear. More than this, I was wrong about old age. And these mistakes were rooted in the same ugly prejudice: I'm ashamed to confess that, for much of my life, I was an incorrigible ageist.

About two and a half years ago, freshly retired, having entered what I was defensively calling my "early late sixties," I dug up a copy of Lear and gave it another go. I was surprised to find that, as the curtain lifts, the hero is not feeble, not already half-lost to senility. Rather, he is strong, blustering, full of passion and self-assurance. It's the cruelty he suffers that speeds his decline. Two of his daughters shut him from their homes and condescend to him remorselessly. They call him an old fool and a superannuated baby, and tell him the time has come for him to "be rul'd and led" by others. Lear experiences this as a trauma. He exclaims, "grief hath craz'd my wits," and begins to doubt his sanity, wondering aloud, who "can tell me who I am?" Before long, he seems to adopt his daughters' view, calling himself "wretched," nothing more than a "poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man."

Amid its spectacular poetry and profound truth, King Lear offers something more basic: a rough metaphor for how society often mistreats the elderly. As I write this, ten thousand Americans are retiring each day. None of them, one prays, will suffer the type of extravagant cruelty inflicted by Lear's daughters. The evils most commonly faced by seniors are subtler and more diffuse, but pernicious nonetheless.

As I've previously written, ageism stands as one of the last widely acceptable social prejudices, and is rampant even among the otherwise conscientious. When you watch for it, you find it everywhere: entertainment, government, advertising, commerce. Have a look at the birthday cards on offer at your neighborhood pharmacy. They supply a catalogue of ugly stereotypes about the old. Scanning them, you'd think no one has anything to look forward to past fifty but a painful, pathetic, protracted shriveling of body and mind.

Ageism is harmful because, like other forms of prejudice, it prevents people from being treated fairly. It affronts their humanity and attempts to diminish them, to disregard their character, to reduce the vast complexity of each person to a thing, a cheap, ready-made, less-than-human "type." As Lear illustrates, the consequences of such prejudice can prove devastating. It may "craze the wits," and trick us into believing that we are, merely because of our age, wretched and despised. The study results I cited in my last article from Duke University's Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, the Journals of Gerontology and the CDC bear repeating: researchers have correlated experiences of age discrimination with higher rates of physical and mental infirmity.

My generation can proudly reflect on the many ways in which, together, we helped to shape youth culture, sex, music, politics and civil rights. Much of this owes to the extraordinary demographic coincidence of our births: there are, quite simply, a lot of us. And in our numbers there is great power and energy. The buzz phrases used to label our cohort reflect this: We came into the world in a "baby boom"; we'll depart it in a "silver tsunami." Surely, it is our responsibility to harness our collective might once more, and to rally against ageism with the same fervor we exercised in our youth. Stamping out age discrimination would stand as a worthy final achievement -- one more generational contribution to what George Eliot called the "growing good of the world."

And as we fight against ageism in society, we must also guard against it in ourselves. On this front, Lear is also instructive. It reminds us that old age need not be, as the King believes at the start of the drama, a long "crawl toward death." Instead, it can be an adventure, an opportunity to enlarge our empathy and wisdom. As Lear draws nearer to death, he grows larger in spirit. "The great rage" that marred his mature years recedes, and he turns "brave" and "jovial," wishing only to "live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies." Lear is famously difficult, bleak, brutal and sad. In spite of this -- perhaps because of the tremendous intensity of language and character on display -- it is never depressing, never foreclosed to hope. Near the end of the play, another old man, the Duke of Gloucester, having been betrayed, assaulted, blinded and cast out, breaks down and wishes to die. His devoted son sees him wallowing on the ground and speaks a simple phrase, one I hope to never forget, no matter what circumstances old age might impose: snap out of it, he says, "Thy life is a miracle."