Young children taught me how to let things roll off my back, because they often say things that are so unselfconsciously true for themselves that they can’t be blamed for being unkind. Observations like, “This tastes gross,” or “Grandpa smells strange,” or “I don’t like that present,” usually said by 3- or 4-year-olds in front of a person whose feelings should be considered may warm your face until you learn to laugh it off and forgive them for embarrassing you. (I call this “softening the hide.” Children softened my ability to hide.) Scientists say their features are so rounded and they are so cute that we can’t help but forgive them. We dismiss these slights because we know they don’t yet have all their politenesses in place; they haven’t yet learned to repress their true responses.
The other phase of life in which this type of candor appears is when older people begin to dismantle their social masks and give voice to their native opinions. Like: “I hope she doesn’t bring that brat to lunch this time,” or “Gawd, your hair looks awful,” or when a normally buttoned up 80-year-old begins to sob uncontrollably during a TV commercial. Observers will then say: “She doesn’t have any filters anymore” or “Ha, ha…that’s Dad for you,” or they’ll blame it on the person’s health. (It could also be that older people feel invisible, and therefore try to trigger responses from others.)
When this elder-honesty occurs, we might assume that the person knows better but chooses to let him/herself go, or purposely offend. Yet ageing is truly the last unknown territory for all of us. Elders are going through it for the first time; they can’t explain to us what it’s like, and they might only be self-reflective about it after they’re gone.
But losing our capacity to be self-repressive could be another kind of innocence. The ageing person could be “softening their hide”: actually, letting down the barriers that keep them hidden.
A decade ago, a friend suggested that I was hitting this patch. My opinions had begun to be more rigid than they had been. Or, I was becoming less invisible to myself and my own opinions, which I had, via forty years of verbal dexterity and diplomacy, skillfully repressed. As I was getting older, it felt more important to make myself heard and understood, to become less anonymous to myself, to show up fully. My friend said I had reached the “Take no prisoners, motherf*cka” stage.
Many of us have been heavily conditioned to conceal the tender parts of ourselves that we don’t want others to see. We developed this strategy by following the model, over time, of the people most central to our survival.
The best way I have learned to disarm this conditioning is to let myself be pelted by truths that innocents tell, over and over. But besides giving yourself over to the complete, 20-year-long commitment to the care of dependent beings, another way to soften the hide is to get dipped repeatedly in situations that call for empathy. When I hear someone else’s stories and get to see the world through their eyes, then I can’t really blame them for simple human reactions and mistakes. When I try on how it would be to be them, I can only gauge through my imagination what my particular responses should be if I had lived all their experiences, which are totally different from my own.
Higher Thought: The Cannabis Game allows me to witness such a wide range of other people’s reactions, perceptions, and observations so foreign to mine, that I am amazed to reflect that I share the globe with so many people, no two alike. (That’s the real definition of snowflake. Something utterly distinctive. Not the bully’s concept, in which a snowflake is “too delicate,” someone who “melts,” who loses power in the face of institutionalized vulgarity or attack, but rather our quality of “snowflakeness” means that we’re all completely unique, and yet still, together, compose a snowfall, a snowstorm, a snowmelt. No two alike, yet together: an avalanche.)
Sometimes it astounds me that we can relate to each other at all, but I know that listening and speaking in a safe zone for conversation helps me relate and understand. I’m especially keen to sit in on a game composed of folks in their 70s on up, and see where higher thoughts take the elders, especially those who have little practice in airing their opinions. It could bring an edge to the game that would be provocative and prickly — not cute, not sweet —and yet illuminate new zones of innocence I have to look forward to.