Binary thinking about age

Two branches of echiveria, a red succulent plant. An image to represent the binary.

Binary thinking about age reinforces our own prejudice and fear. But old age is not a binary choice, all-or-nothing; it’s far more tricky.

We like binary thinking. We use it all the time as a short-cut. It’s so easy, you can’t even call it thinking. Two choices. Zero or one. Black or white. On or off. Yes or no. Male or female. Like or don’t like. And old or young.

I’m already arguing about myself over that paragraph because binary code is powerful stuff. It can represent almost any word, number, idea, or transaction imaginable. I think this is true. Certainly I made fair isle sweaters with a computerised knitting machine in the 1970s. So never mind binary code for now.

Old age is not an absolute. Yet that’s how we’re inclined to see it. Old and young are experienced as opposites. Hence the shock when it strikes us: I’m getting old! I look old! I’m not young anymore! (Exclamation marks are inevitable here.)

Adding middle age to the mix used to help, last century. People in their 40s and 50s had their mythical mid-life crises and their new lives or wives or Lamborghinis. At 65 you retired and after that you might be considered old—and by definition, staid.

Now we see people starting a business at 65, marking retirement with many years of travel-eat-pray-love and running marathons in their 90s. And we see other fit and healthy people clipping their own wings at 40 or 50. Someone physically frail may be creating crosswords in Latin. Someone house-bound may be essential to a community. Healthy people obsess over their health and sick people sing. None of these are exceptions to the rule: there are no rules.

The old stereotypes have exploded. We’re too messy for those pigeon holes. But people are getting used to us. We are getting used to us.

I’m tempted by other ways to think about old age. A range of old people? I grew to despise that corporate weasel word. (Whaddya mean? A variety? More than one?) A spectrum? OK, but only if it is three dimensional. Fluid thinking? Fine in theory, except that my mind at 81 slithers all over the place and I am hungry for structure.

Binary thinking is under-thinking. Overthinking is my besetting cognitive sin these days; added to a dwindling short term memory, this will wreck my writing if I let it. I love a good spreadsheet… until it sprouts multiple work sheets and the connections grow dense and dark.

So let’s keep it simple. Notice when we slip into binary thinking about age. Drop the steel dichotomy of old and young. See ourselves and others as wonderfully complex and subtle, each with a unique history and way of being. Whatever our age.

And maybe differentiate between old and frail old.

25 thoughts on “Binary thinking about age

  1. Ingrid Ward says:

    Love this. How different life would be if we let go of anything that separates us by being identified as right or wrong, black or white, old or young etc and instead come to understand that we are all equal members of the one family, the family of humanity, each of us with our very unique and priceless angles that we bring to those around us and to our world.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It does help, I think, to catch myself making snap judgements. Sometimes they are appropriate but sometimes they blind me to reality. Thanks, Ingrid.

  2. Paula Light says:

    I am relatively frail at 60, with chronic back pain that keeps me from doing many activities. Yes, I feel “old,” but I’m OK with that. There’s a certain amount of freedom when I decide not to spend money on makeup, hair color, and such these days because I have accepted how I look. I’m no longer trying to impress some man. I can stay home and read on a Saturday night without feeling I’m missing out. I know what’s out there! 😝

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You are you. Nobody else can be you. So you don’t fit into a pigeon-hole of old or young. Thanks for talking to us, Paula. Your light shines out.

  3. You’ve given me something to think about. I did share you post on my Facebook page. Claudia

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you Claudia!

  4. I like the way you think. Young, middle-aged, and old don’t cut it! We are too complex!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I wonder whether they ever did… Perhaps we thought the non-conformers were outliers?

  5. So true – it is all relative and everyone ages so differently. Thanks for a lovely perspective!

  6. I love this thinking. Regardless of how old I feel, or how old people perceive me, I shall continue to try my best not to grow up!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Spot on! There’s plenty of wriggle room there.

      1. A concept I learned to embrace many years ago!

  7. judibwriting says:

    Thanks for this spark. My body is older than my chronological years, my experience tracks an arc of learning along the way, my heart and mind stay as curious and as open as I can hold them – I endeavor to stay childlike to better embrace this wild ride of an unstable world.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I love your story, and not only because you prove my point:)

  8. As you say, much more to us than a boring old on-off switch … 🙂

  9. bone&silver says:

    I just wrote a beautiful long comment on your blog on your website, and it got rejected for an ‘invalid security token.’ *sigh. But I can comment here? Weird. Anyway, in essence I shared that I am grateful at age 55 to be living in such a more fluid time, in terms of concepts around ageing/sexuality/gender/careers/creativity etc. We are the privileged indeed. Blessings from Australia, G

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Don’t you hate it when that happens? May I ask if it was in Reader that you succeeded in commenting? (A friend needs to know!) More to the point, I so appreciate your executive summary: you are right, it’s exciting to have our old certainties challenged and relaxed. Thank you, G., twice: for responding in depth and persisting when your beautiful words were lost.

      1. bone&silver says:

        You’re welcome. And yes, it was in Reader that I was successful

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Thanks, I will tell my friend to keep trying in Reader.

  10. cedar51 says:

    Interesting – a lot to think about.

    but for a bit of a heads up – whenever I meet someone for the first time, they immediately can’t understand why I’m using an AT-Hop PT/Gold card – they assume I’ve stolen someone else’s.I apparently do not look old enough…but when I look in the mirror or down at my hands I see wrinkles galore and my once brown hair is rather silver in places… Then just as I go to do some fine motor skill, I’m placed in vulnerable and old because of my severe hand disabilities. Again assumption that I acquired those disabilities in old age – I inherited them, had them from day I was born! I’m still a junior in the age stakes, turned 70 this year…

    sorry if this is disjointed, it’s been a bit of a tough week for me in Auckland, especially after yesterdays terrorist attack at my local mall – and no I was safe at home, obeying Alert Level 4 rules. But just too close for comfort in many ways…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      How confusing and annoying this incomprehension must be for you. It’s certainly a reminder to keep our minds open whenever meeting someone new. I’m sorry to learn that you live close to the supermarket where the attacker caused havoc. Petrifying. Stay home! I pretty much do now and am finding lockdown quite lonely this time. This too will pass.

  11. “Binary thinking is under-thinking.” Amen!

  12. cedar51 says:

    I don’t think that I’m “lonely with the lockdown” because for most of the last 2 years, I’ve been homebound anyway. Although when the 1st of September was a glorious day up here, I dearly wanted to go bus-hopping where I ride the public transport to all kinds of “not in my ‘hood places” but I knew I shouldn’t – thinking that a policeman might query whether Devonport was in my ‘hood 🙂 “err no it’s not officer…”

    I had very busy mostly volunteer life up until about five years ago, I belonged and was involved in various activities and then I finally decide to resign from all. I needed to more or less find myself. I took up courses with an art school by distance delivery and I think, if I didn’t have all that knowledge, I might have got very lonely. But I also found “I quite liked the solitary me” and I could go off site if I wanted too…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So have you had a wake-up birthday, I’m wondering?

  13. I love the assertion that we are too messy for those pigeon holes. Absolutely true! I am retired, just turned 62, and still think like a 35-year-old. I am not starting a new career, but finding ways to be helpful to others in theirs. I think mentorship is often overlooked as an important and gratifying way to be involved, sharing historic wisdom, and offering guidance as requested. It is impossible to impose the old ways upon the new, but the young often do not see life’s bigger picture, and that’s where being “old” keeps us “young” and provides value overall. Additionally, participating – or competing – to the extent each are able – in group multi-adventure activities keeps interest in others activated and your overall well-being elevated. Thanks for this post, Rachel!

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