Does it Matter What We Are Called?

By Elouise Bell

Scene: BYU. Time: A while back.

A dozen English faculty are officed in cubicles off a central hallway. Sound carries with great clarity. A student is ending his conference with a professor.

“Thank you very much, Sister Highstreet.”

After his footsteps die away, the professor calls passionately to anyone within the sound of her voice, “I’d rather be sworn at than called ‘Sister’!”

A colleague then hoists himself out of his chair, lumbers down to the woman’s office, pokes his head in and obligingly says, “Blast you, Caroline!” (Except, of course, “blast” was not quite the word.)

How important are labels? Does it make any difference if a student calls an instructor “Mr.,” “Doctor,” “Professor,” “Sister,” or “Bob”? One BYU law professor said, “When a student calls me “Brother Pratt,” I know he’s going to ask for something he shouldn’t have.” When Dallin H. Oaks began his tenure as president of BYU, he told the faculty they could call him “President” or “Elder” as the situation warranted, but not “Doctor Oaks” (though he had an earned doctorate, of course.) At the University of Chicago, the term was considered rather, well, tacky.

Oddly enough, even a title of great respect can feel inappropriate sometimes. Prior to a major event in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a BYU dance group performed a warm-up act, the energetic students whipping up and down the aisles, skipping, swirling, and smiling at the audience. One young man was stunned mid-leap when he recognized the President of the Church sitting quietly on an end seat. The surprised lad caroled out happily, “Hi, Prophet!” An interesting distinction, that: “Prophet” is a revered term for the position, but as a title of address, not so much.

One delightful irony concerns grandparents and their names. A man may have been the awesome CEO of the largest widget conglomerate in the hemisphere, always insisting on being called “Mr. Bigg” by employees, “Richard” by a select few, but never “Rich,” “Dick” or “Biggie.” Yet if heaven smiles and gives him grandchildren, he is tickled pink whether they call him “Umpah,” “Gummo,” “Pop-Pop,” or “Dandaw.”

Does it matter what we are called? More important, does it matter what we call ourselves? Well, yes. There is one word that most Americans despise if it’s applied to them. And that attitude could be a real hindrance to our mortal (and perhaps spiritual) progress.

Sometime after turning seventy, I addressed an Elderhostel group of folks over 65, including a number in their nineties. When I began one sentence, “Because we are old—,” the crowd exploded in a huff, and I was in danger of being whacked by several crutches.

“Who’s old? I’m not old! Don’t call us old!” The chorus was insistent.

As a matter of fact, the group formerly titled Elderhostel, designed specifically for those over 65, has recently changed its name to Road Scholars. You may hear various explanations for the change, but the main reason was surely the huge distaste for the word “old” or any word akin to it.

What, after all, is in a name? Does it matter that so many people cringe at the word “old”?

I believe it matters a great deal. Human life has three major parts if we’re lucky: youth, middle age, and old age. Each one has its purpose.

In our young years, we learn how to care for ourselves, how to live with others, set goals, master the basics of literacy and numbers, prepare for an occupation or profession, and deal with our sexuality. In our middle years, we raise a family, sharpen our occupational skills, explore the wider world, do what we can to make that world a better place, ponder a bit more deeply the spiritual questions, and if we have any sense at all, make provision for our old age.

And what is the purpose of old age? From what I’ve observed, most of us act as if there is a sharp cut-off point somewhere at the rim of our late fifties, a chasm between all of our previous life and the land of Whatever May Befall Us in the last third. Most of us are unprepared to move forward; we haven’t seriously thought about learning, growing, and developing much more. And so we tend to think of ourselves—we want to think of ourselves—as still and always in the middle years. That’s who we are, worlds without end, amen. We rarely think that there could be any specific old-age-related goals.

Yes, yes, there are many negatives associated with being old, and we’d love to skip them outright. If we don’t say the word, maybe none of its connotations will apply to us: sickness, frailty, failing endurance, fading attractiveness, and uh—what was that other thing? Ah yes, forgetfulness. We’d like to deny those dreadful things that can go along with being old. So we ignore the reality that, hale or ailing, we are old.

But more than wanting to avoid the negatives, we are at a loss about what the positives are. We simply don’t know what the significant work of old age might be. We don’t really have an idea of what is meant to happen between, say, that 65th birthday and the 85th or 90th. Retirement, yes, a lot of golf or some cruises, regular association with grandkids, certainly. For some, more temple work or a mission. For many of us, Mormon or not, there is much “giving back,” helping others, whether they are family, neighbors, the sick, at-risk kids, the less fortunate around the globe. And of course, such a focus is admirable and greatly to be desired—in old age as in youth and in the middle years.

But what is the optimal development of the self during our years as old people? And can we possibly achieve that development if we even refuse to name the reality and remind ourselves that we have moved beyond the middle years and the work of that age? We expect children to become adults, and young adults to become mature and middle-aged. But growth in the last third of life? What would that even look like?

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian, made the point perfectly: “We must live life forward, but understand it backward.” How long might it take to look backward and understand the sixty or more years already lived? And to repair as much as possible the spiritual wear and tear of those years? To forgive and seek forgiveness, to mend rifts and rents in the fabric of even the closest relationships, to do some taming of habits that may have been necessary when we were working or parenting, but are surely serious impairments after the need has passed?

(One example: the habit of endlessly correcting. After years of reprimanding dirty hands or sloppy dress, of overseeing co-workers’ slip-ups or late reports, some of us come to see ourselves not only as the eternal watchmen on the tower of moral virtue, but as appointed and anointed keepers of—oh, everything: grammar, fashion, national policy, religious truths, nutritional wisdom, the parameters, once and for all, of proper parenting.)

In youth and mid-life, few of us really learn much about prayer or meditation, practices that take thought and patience—and perhaps a little more alone time than those segments of life allow. (And maybe many of us are unknowingly haunted by the specter of loneliness implied in both.) In a recent issue of Sunstone, Michael Farnworth explains how it takes most of life to even begin to understand the psychological Shadow that haunts each human being. Only when freed from that false self can we ripen in faith.

And what about this business of sharing our accumulated wisdom? Surely more is involved than an occasional offhand lecture to a grandson, or a pithy letter to a grandaughter on her mission? Family stories, personal history, memoirs—all await the calmer time of old age to be corralled with the attention and wisdom they deserve, to be shepherded into some kind of permanent place: writings available to later generations.

The German artist Kaethe Kollwitz wrote with admiration of Goethe, who in his advanced age worked with determination to “bring the pyramid of his life to its ultimate apex.” As a culture, is it time to quit being coy about age? Is it, perhaps, time not only to acknowledge old age, but to embrace it with expectation of growth and serious forward movement toward our individual apex, rather than musing over wishful bucket lists and the hope of higher golf scores?