Oh, dear Lord, how I hate condescension! Deliberate condescension is infuriating; unintentional condescension is just hurtful. But either way, it is dismissal…and I find myself increasingly on the receiving end of it as the years too-rapidly pass. Again, most of it is well-intentioned, but the fact is that the older we become, the more we are regarded the same way as we regard small children. (“Oh, that’s a very pretty picture, Bobby. Did you draw it all by yourself?)
Yesterday in a store, a young woman dropped a plastic bottle of water, and I quickly bent over to pick it up for her. Rather than a simple “thank you” she went out of her way to let me know how very much she appreciated my kindness, and wished me a very nice day, which, in turn, was very nice of her. But would she have reacted the same way if a 30-year-old had done the same thing? Possible, but I somehow doubt it.
What happens to us as we grow older? Why do people begin treating us differently just because we have accumulated several more years than they have? And have not the slightest doubt, regardless of how young you now are, that if you are lucky enough to live long enough, your days of being on the receiving end of condescension will come.
Part of the problem, admittedly, belongs with the aging, who too often stop doing things for themselves when they see they can rely on other people to do it for them. Strong, dynamic people who once ran successful businesses and raised families and whose opinions were sought and valued on every subject slowly slide into timidity and hesitancy and unsurity. “Oh, I can’t do that anymore!” “I’m to old to do thus and so.” “No, thanks, I think I’ll just stay home and knit.”
When I lived in northern Wisconsin, my neighbor and good friend Louisa was nearing 80, living alone, keeping her house spotless, cooking wonderful things which she would make sure I would share. She tended a good sized garden, and was always on the go. Then one day she fell in her home and wasn’t found for a couple of hours. Her daughter Marge immediately came from Minneapolis to care for her and in the blink of an eye, it seemed, Louisa changed from “Let me get you a cup of coffee” to “Marge, could you get me a glass of water?” Marge, out of love and concern, insisted Louisa come to live with her and her family in Minneapolis, taking Louisa not only from her home but from everyone and everything she had known all her life. Within a year, she was dead. In a way, I can’t help but think she was a victim of a virulent strain of unintentional condescension.
The gap between what we were and what we, willingly or unwillingly, become grows with each act of condescension. “How are we today, Bob?” (The use of “We” is the epitome of condescension.) “Would you like some help with that?” If Bob looks like he needs “some help with that”, by all means offer it. If he looks too frail to stand by himself on a bus, by all means offer him a seat. But if he is just carrying a package or standing there minding his own business, give him the dignity of treating him like everyone else.
We should never stop being kind, or thoughtful of others of any age. But when it comes to those much older than you, just, please, adapt the level of kindness to the situation. Be careful that your kindness does not say, as condescension to the elderly too often says: “You are no longer one of us.”
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