Recuerdo: Más sabe el diablo por viejo, no que por diablo

Yesterday afternoon, again, I sat in a treatment chair at my oncologist’s office. A nurse plunged a needle into the infus-a-port in my chest, then attached to the port a hypodermic needle that flushed the port with saline solution. She then hung a large IV bag of magnesium-infused liquid (more saline, I assume) and set the flow rate of the device to empty into my chest, drip by drip, over a timeframe previously determined by the oncologist. One of the chemo drugs that has been pumped into me through the same infus-a-port during several previous sessions dramatically depleted the amount of magnesium in my blood. The IV infusions of the magnesium solution, along with twice-a-day magnesium tablets, are being used to replenish the necessary supply of the mineral. Even with all infusions, though, the level of magnesium has not returned to acceptably safe levels, so I return regularly so my blood can be checked and so that more of the stuff can be pumped into me. During the infusion processes, I close my eyes, hoping I might be able to sleep for a while. But usually I do not sleep. Instead, I think about all the other people who sit in the other roughly fourteen treatment chairs. I do not know what kinds of cancer the other people have, although I hear an occasional reference to taxotere, a chemo drug I learned about when my late wife was being treated for breast cancer a number of years ago. And my ears perk up when I hear mention that a bag of keytruda, a drug that has been used with me (and will be for another two years, if I recall correctly), is being delivered. I have overheard other patients chatting about their cancers: bladder cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma, etc., etc., etc. I wonder whether the treatments they are receiving are intended to cure their cancers or just to extend their lives? I do not ask, of course. I do not engage in conversation with other patients, though many of them seem quite happy to converse with others about their afflictions and the treatments they are receiving. I prefer to remain quiet, keeping to myself in my private cocoon. It is not uncommon to hear others speak of their faith that “God is in control.” I suppose those patients need or want assurances that the oncologists are being guided in their work by a divine hand. How many of those patients, I wonder, will be alive in two or three or five years? Yesterday afternoon’s session kept me from attending and leading the church board meeting. That is just as well, in that I was not in a state of mind to deal with church business. My term as president of the board has been, thus far, less than stellar.  Fortunately, other members of the board have risen to the occasion, so I doubt my lack of initiative and enthusiasm has done any lasting damage. In hindsight, I perhaps should not have been quite so willing to accept the role. The people who follow will no doubt inject the passion and commitment necessary for the organization to fulfill its potential. That reality, I think, is one of the benefits of democratic institutions. Bumps in the road can be smoothed and largely forgotten, or at least forgiven, in short order.  Ah…I have returned to my old ways, haven’t I? My stream of consciousness has “seamlessly” made the transition from chemotherapy to ironed-in-wrinkles in leadership to diversions and deviations in human potential. If there were a prize for randomness, I might take third place. And, now, I will reproduce a post I wrote several years ago. For some reason, I am somewhat proud of the way my mind worked back then.


Here is a post I wrote in October 2019. I am reposting it because I rather liked it when I originally posted it. 

U.S. culture treats advanced age as a terminal illness and it treats those consumed by the “illness” as disposable. The quicker the better. Mexican culture, from what I understand, has a different perspective. Age equates to experience which, in turn, forms a foundation of wisdom. People fortunate enough to have survived many years of experience are, in Mexico, revered. This morning, as I was thinking about these conflicting cultural perspectives on age, I happened upon a Facebook post that included a few excerpts from a book by Paul Theroux, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip. One quote from the book, a recitation of a Mexican aphorism, struck me as particularly interesting: Más sabe el diablo por viejo, no que por diablo. Roughly translated into English, that says, “The devil is wise because he is old, not because he’s the devil.

I wonder how it happens that some cultures hold the aged in high regard, while others view them as used-up, worn-out, and generally in the way? I wish I knew and I wish I knew how to reverse that perspective.  But I don’t. I suppose the best way to try is to model the behaviors one hopes to see in others.

Yet I feel just a tad sheepish about automatically giving respect to someone simply because he or she has managed to say alive for many, many years. I have encountered plenty of people whose lengthy lives are almost certainly accidental; only by pure chance have these people not stepped in front of buses or drowned in the shower. These people exemplify the concept that: “They do not have ninety years of experience; they have one year of experience repeated ninety times.” That is, they have learned nothing of consequence by living so long.

But more people than not do not fall into that category of old and stupid. More people have, in fact, learned a great deal over the course of their lives, thanks to their ability to associate the meaning of different experiences at many different times of their lives. That may be a hard sentence to digest; they can rely on experiences from years ago to help interpret and give meaning to experiences years later. Maybe that helps explain it.

As usual, I’ve wandered off course. Why do our cultures hold such diametrically opposed perspectives about age? And how can our culture change to be more closely aligned with Mexican culture? I suppose the first step is to change our collective attitudes about our cultures and other cultures. That is, we need to acknowledge that our culture is not always “better” and other cultures are not always “worse.” We need to accept that our culture can learn from other cultures and can improve by adopting some of their perspectives and practices.

I suppose we teach children, from an early age, that older people are not as valuable as younger people. We train people to believe we reach our intellectual peaks around age 45 and decline precipitously thereafter. Somewhere along the line, 50 became the new 99; once a person reaches 50, he is unemployable. His knowledge and capabilities leaked from his head and cannot be recovered.

I have no practical solutions. I just write to complain. I have nothing else to contribute. I’m just sucking in air that should have been made available to someone younger.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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