The tyranny of the aged

Tyrants come in all shapes and sizes. We are accustomed to their presence in history. The very word fills our imagination with faces, burnt into our minds by movies, books, documentaries and the stories of friends and family who faced their power in war. Ask someone for examples of tyrants and many names will come up, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao or more recently Saddam. Their tyranny was famous, remarkable in intensity and in the sheer volume of blood with which their names were written on history. We know them.

But sometimes we forget that tyranny can be focused more intimately, in a scale so small that it passes by unnoticed. In fact, tyranny can be the chief characteristic of a relationship between two people. And even though it does not make the history books, even though it escapes our notice because the bruises may be small, the scars psychic, this tyranny is no less life altering to its victim.

Tyranny, says my abused and rumpled Oxford desk dictionary, can be “the cruel and arbitrary use of authority”. It does not include any requirement for numbers of persons involved, nor any description of the types of authority or cruelty invoked by tyrants. So, I believe, tyranny is most prevalent in families.

We see it in the terrors of domestic violence. The news brings us shootings, arrests and abductions. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of a woman, or even man, whose physical wounds are the result of an event described with mumbled words, averted eyes and silence. Their lives are ruled by pain, randomly applied by their tyrant.

Worse still is the tyranny of parents who beat, who burn, who do unspeakable acts to the most helpless citizens of their homes. They come to believe that their authority gives them the right to harm, neglect or speak cruelly to their little ones. This touches us in the place where we all remain children for our entire lives.

But as relationships go, another tyranny is seldom recognized, seldom even admitted by its victims. It is the oppression of adult children by aging, adult parents. Most commonly, it is practiced by those who are frustrated and dissatisfied by life. In their elderly years they believe they have a right to treat their children as slaves. I’m not writing against the elderly, by any means. I see and care for the elderly every day that I work, and respect them enormously. Much of my life, from childhood, has been an intense interaction with elderly men and women who loved and cared for me and taught me what the Bible meant when it said, “gray hair is a crown of splendor”. Most of them have gone on to their real crowns eternal. But I have seen others, in practice and my own life, who live their later years as if the only way to endure their own unhappiness were to inflict it on their daughters and sons.

These men and women often use the Bible as their defense. “Honor your father and mother!”, they quote freely and frequently. But any other mention of mercy, wisdom or kindness escapes them, and their grown children face decades of life with constant late night phone calls regarding fabricated physical ailments, exaggerated real ones or any other excuse to pull the puppet strings they attach to their children.

Too many good, caring adult children contend every day with visits that would depress a saint. Many, who invite a parent to live with them, find their entire household dragged into a constant state of depression. These long-suffering, devoted offspring cannot travel or ‘illness’ suddenly appears in their parent. Their marriages struggle or dissolve. Their own children stay away or visit only briefly. The later years of their own lives, which could be full of satisfaction and joy, become mired down with misery, and punctuated with threats of suicide, comparisons with better children or twice daily recollections of how the tyrant suffered for his or her children; a walk down memory lane planted with land mines of guilt.

I have seen it up close, personally; it is horrible to behold. What a pity that for a few older adults, life confers entitlement rather than wisdom. How tragic that in their age they do not enjoy their descendants, or show them the virtue of life well lived, but choose to spend their final years tormenting the ones they should love best.

(FYI, for followers of my Greenville News column, this is one from the archives)

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