I've been mulling over this a bit, wondering what to express. Therapist Bob Bergeron, a self-appointed guru of healthy aging for gay men, committed suicide at 49. He was author of an unpublished book, "The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond." and gave seminars on that topic.
For some reason, I feel more pissed off at him, than grieving for him. Here was a man who was making a living telling men "life begins at 40", who, without saying why, decided his life was over. The message seems to come off, "that was wishful thinking. Better dead than fat and grey".
This really is a trait that gay men promote endlessly. "Old" often means "over 30", sometimes "over 40". Beyond that? Neanderthals walk among us? Young gay men an be withering in their insults about older gay men. I was lucky, I guess. Almost all of my friends died in the 80s. No need to discover what it means to age.
Bergeron's website is still up (what happens to our websites when we die?). On it, he states:
In 2012 I want to:
1. Take better care of myself.
2. Spend more time out of the house interacting and having fun.
3. Find happiness with getting older and stop lying about my age.
Looking at Bergeron's psychobabble, he seems to have thought life as a gay man revolves entirely around being youthfully sexually attractive. Life is defined as "men who I want, are sexually attracted to me, and I am sexually attractive to myself". In the NY Times article, "Here was a man who ended his life at the exact moment he seemed to be nearing a professional peak, one that involved the upbeat story of a mature gay man facing the second half of his life with enthusiasm, hope and an endless array of tight T-shirts." Regarding his suicide, NYTimes goes on to state, on his kitchen island Bergeron "placed the title page of his book, on which he also wrote his suicide note...Mr. Bergeron also wrote, “It’s a lie based on bad information.” An arrow pointed up to the name of the book.
I guess this is what really pisses me off. A self-described guru of healthy aging, was caught up in his fantasy of always having big biceps and a 6-pack belly, tight shirts and being able to hook up with the hot young looking guys. It wasn't personal accomplishment, growing mentally and emotionally, developing deeper and more full relationships, "becoming" what he was next becoming, learning to love life, building on life experiences, and not being stuck in the past.
I know an adorable, incredibly cute 86 year old man. His voice and mannerisms are very much on the feminine side, so I think he might be gay, but I haven't asked. Maybe not. He enjoys life, has lots of friends, and is always a pure delight. He reminds me of Betty White. Being around him always gives me joy. He loves life, gardens, travels, and learns new things. He has 35 years on Bergeron. He tells me life is good, and he's happy.
I don't know many gay men in their 50s, so it's hard to say. 50s seems to be a time of just surviving in a career- or job-dominated life. No time to think about shallow hookups or lack thereof, which seems to have been Bergeron's thing.
I love looking at gnarly great old trees. There is a magnificence to old lions. Old dogs can be so beautiful, a little grouchy, placid, and stuck in their habits. A 100-year old bonzai tree is a thing of beauty. Gore Vidal, stunningly beautiful as a young man, is one of those old lions who is to be admired. So was the aging Picasso. So was my Dad.
I think it's very harmful to tell people, all that is worth living in life is to pretend to be young. That flourishing when older depends on never accepting age. In "gayland", successful aging may well mean giving up the endless party, finding new things to be proud of, new accomplishments, and aging like a fine soy sauce. Nothing wrong with enjoying the adventures, more power to everyone who does. But it doesn't last forever, and when it's time to move on, that change should be embraced as the next adventure, rather than a loss to be grieved. Big mistake of Bergeron, and his lesson to everyone seems to be that life after 40 is not worth living. For that, all I can say is "You jerk. Grow up."
Just goes to show, if you can't let go of the past, the weight of the past will destroy you.
David, thank you for reading and commenting. When I read about Bergeron it was hard to know what to think. It's fine for people to enjoy life and play - there is no judgement from me for that. We should enjoy life, and that includes sex and play, and adventure. But there is much more to life, and many more pleasures that are so sweet, and there is so much more meaning. In the end Bergeron's suicide managed to not only end his own life, but was a message of despair to others that their lives to were hopeless and without meaning. That is the lie. It was poor judgement on his part, and a final act of abuse. He needed to let go of the past, as you state. In order to do that, he needed to build a future, but he had no vision of what that future could be. He would probably have benefited from knowing a few older folks, who could help him know how sweet later life can be, but maybe he had too much internalized agism to let that happen.
It just seems to me like a failure to grow and adapt. I'm reminded of a line from the end of Michael Flanders' English translation of Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat:
You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.
One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.
Not that getting older means you just lie down and wait to die, which unfortunately is the attitude our youth-obsessed culture has taken. As soon as you hit middle age you may as well head off to the nursing home as far as society is concerned. But there's a difference between being proverbially young at heart and living in denial. There are great examples of this from my own family. My great-aunt is in her late 80s now and lost her husband almost ten years ago to a stroke, but instead of letting it get her down and despairing she gets her hair done, volunteers in the community and hops on a bus every couple of months with her friends to travel and live life to the fullest. Her older sister, on the other hand, basically gave up and stagnated, and spent the last few months of her life in a nursing home after suffering a massive stroke. My mom's mother retired a few years ago and has also given up, and sadly is declining fast, physically and mentally. Attitude is everything!
Bergeron realized that his approach to life was a lie, and instead of applying the scientific method and adapting his approach to the facts, he just gave up. There's that story from The God Delusion about the visiting researcher who disproved a professor of Dawkins', who came up and shook the researcher's hand and said "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." If only Bergeron could've said that instead and found a way to embrace the gift of years he had been given...
David, thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I love that poem. The observations from your family show the benefit of knowing our families - we can observe what course they have taken in life, and look into ourselves and think about what aspects will be beneficial or harmful, or mixed. And for most of us, we enjoy those who live in joy, and suffer those who live in suffering.
In "gay culture", whatever that is, there is often an absence of that big-picture. I would never offer up my own life and an example - too messy and too many mistakes, but one thing that applies here, is there have been multiple times when I had to shed a "prior life", figure out what to do next, work on that - often difficult - and "become." It's all an experiment. There are regrets, and some big errors in thinking, but for the most part it seems like it works. I would never have anticipated at 20 that my life now would be what it is, but I would not go back to 20 either.
The Stravinsky quote really is beautiful.
Daniel, I am quite moved by what you've written. You've spoken with such great eloquence and wisdom. You have marvelously put this issue into proper perspective. YOU should be the person writing the book and giving seminars. <Big Hug to you>
Carl, flattery will get you everywhere :-) I know you are sincere, and thank you so much. Other than being almost pathologically shy, and never wanting to be a center of attention, I still don't have the answers. We really do need a version of "Passages" for LGBT people. That will be different for gay men than for Lesbian and Bi people. Aging really should be approached with anticipation, even some preparation, but not dread. There are losses, all life has losses, and challenges, and it's not all what we want - but we only live once, and there is much to enjoy, and much to give, as we age. Not everyone gets here. We should enjoy, and get a kick out of being young, and learn to embrace the stage that we are in. And as we get older, enjoy that too.
Despite the cliche, the concept of a bucket list is appealing. Maybe that comes next.
Daniel, I'm going to continue the flattery. I've been meaning to mention that I like your new profile picture. Love the hat, and the background of flowers is beautiful. (You can stop blushing now.)
About 20 years ago when I was in my late 20's an event occurred in my life which caused me to come face to face with the possibility of death. When you're at that age, death is the absolute last thing on your mind. Talk about having the rug pulled out from under you. Being in such a situation definitely forces you to contemplate the many raw emotional and stark realities regarding mortality and life. Well, long story short...twenty years later I'm still here and living a life which, to me, is much more positively enriched as a result of that experience. Quite frankly, I'm lucky to be alive. As far as growing old (or older) I truly appreciate the opportunity to do so. That's a sentiment I wish I could empress upon the young. Would I want to be able to go back and be young again? Not without the wisdom I've acquired since then. Life is an ongoing process, a persistent march through time which cannot and will not avoid aging. One needs to embrace and accept the realities of the many and different unavoidable stages of life which occur between birth and death. I don't fear death nor do I fear growing old. Sure, I'm not entirely pleased with the limitations aging has already forced upon me and will continue to bestow upon me physically, but the best part of life is not the physical "being." The best part of life is the "experience," no matter what stage you happen to be in.