Old men are on a rampage.
John McCain, the likely Republican nominee for president, is 71. That's older than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected, and we all know Ronnie soon developed Alzheimer's. McCain may not be senile, but he's infamous for his "anger management issues."
Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, who turned 74 last week, has announced his candidacy for president again. The once-beloved consumer advocate has been an annoyance to Democrats since, it's argued, his Green Party candidacy in 2000 sapped votes from Al Gore and helped elect George Bush. If confronted with this, Nader typically bursts into anger, denying it. He grouchily defends his decision to run again with the absurd claim there are no real differences between McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
And, then leaving the political arena, there's Bobby Fischer, the world chess champion who died recently at 64. As he aged, he turned into an international crackpot, living in Iceland where he railed against America and Jews.
Why is it that aging seems to turn many people into cantankerous cartoons? Is it a way of raging against the night? Is it, as it often seems, the birth of a new persona? Or does aging release anger that has long been repressed?
I'm inclined to think aging wipes away our defenses, including whatever contains our anger, and gives true character a chance to emerge, even if in exaggerated form, as James Hillman writes in his book, The Force of Character.
I saw this in my father, who died in November. After my mother became a stroke patient and moved to assisted living many years before his death, he grew steadily more depressed and irritable, often putting my mother's visitors in tears with his abusive language.
He even turned into an occasional policeman of the police, according to one of my brothers. If, while driving, he saw a policeman commit a traffic violation, he would follow the cop and eventually give him a stern lecture. His language, which used to devastate me, became so over-the-top that he really did become a tragic cartoon to my eyes. Where I once felt like crying, I felt like laughing.
Aging is supposed to impart wisdom. The figure of the "wise old man" is archetypal. But it's quite clear that not all old men become wise. My father did not. Contrary to the wise old man is the devouring old ogre (like the god Saturn, who devoured his own children). My father was more in that vein, but his tantrums made clear that he never really grew up.
In some, the wise old man and the ogre coexist. Then genuine wisdom can oscillate with foolishness and greed. Ralph Nader is a spectacular example of that. His critique of American politics is wise, but his own engagement as a candidate is juvenile in its angry denial of practical reality. John McCain is much the same. His hunger for power has caused him to recant the more enlightened positions of his earlier political life, and now he allies himself with the monstrous policies of George Bush. He's become the ogre – and doesn't seem to realize it.
As Hillman writes, the elderly often seem to have one foot here and one foot in the land of the dead. This doesn't make them indifferent to the present, but to the manners and patience required by the real world. They make great activists even if, like John McCain, they tend more toward the authoritarian style of old men.
Of course, one does not wake up one morning and find himself transformed overnight into an old man. Like other baby boomers, I'm inching my way there with great disdain for the process. But I confess that I enjoy the process of character becoming more transparent.
I've never been much of a conformist but I have always felt awkward about my difference, for example. Not so much anymore. A friend recently observed an example, pertinent to my introversion. "You know," he said, "I got sick of your not coming to parties I invited you to."
"Oh?" I replied. "You know I hear this a lot."
"So," he continued, "I decided to punish you by not inviting you anymore."
"Then," he said, "I realized the punishment wasn't working, because you really, really don't care."
I laughed, feeling no need to apologize. That's quite a difference from my youth, when I felt I had to make excuses and apologies. But yes, people find it disorienting (or rude) when I say, "No, I really don't want to come to your party. It's nothing personal."
I'm on my way to happy decrepitude!
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.