Subject or Object?

It’s a choice we face now — and by “we” I mean women who are living in what’s known as “the third stage” of life, beyond middle age:

Do we choose to be the subject or the object of the sentences our lives write in our remaining days? Will those sentences that lead to paragraphs and then to pages ultimately be written in the active or the passive tense? In other words, are we willing to be actors or are we content to be acted upon? Do we strive for inner substance at this point in our lives, or do we spend our time and energy worrying about the deteriorating surface reflected in the mirror?

At a restaurant not long ago I overheard an older, gray-haired woman’s response when she – and everyone else in the room – turned to gape at a stunningly beautiful young woman glide by our tables:

“Oh, I’ll never be as glamorous as she is!” the older woman moaned.

I wanted to (but didn’t) reach over and say to her, “Honey, that ship sailed years ago for us. We have better things to learn and strive for now.”

Subject or object? Active or passive?

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, “Mrs. Dalloway Shows Aging Has Benefits,” adapted from Akiko Busch’s new book, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, I was struck by these words:

“It is a cliché to point out that ours is a culture in which men routinely objectify women, but according to Alison Carper, a psychologist who practices in New York, if a woman is complicit in this practice—that is, in viewing herself as an object—she cannot help but be acutely aware when that object loses its desirability.

“‘As humans, we all need to be recognized,’ Carper adds, ‘but as we grow older, the manner of recognition we search for can change. A subject is someone who experiences her own agency, who is aware of how she can and does have an impact on others and how she is, ultimately, the author of her own life. She is aware of the responsibility this carries.’”

As I write this, women all over the world are getting together to celebrate International Women’s Day. In Mali, West Africa, where I lived for three years twenty years ago, March 8th was a day of rejoicing for the women. They’d make new outfits for themselves from specially designed cotton fabric printed with the words, “La Journée Internationale de la Femme.” They’d play music, dance, sing, and (of course) feast.

These Malian women, whom I came to know and love, were the farthest thing from passive. They were the subjects of their lives. They were strong, forthright, smart, and proud. I, who had never known of International Women’s Day and had never before seen it celebrated, learned indelible lessons from them, not the least of which was that the older women led in their line dancing; the older women led the way.

(For more on this story, please go to my WOW archive and search for the post “Women’s Day,” published March 5, 2017.)

When I was young, growing up in a home where World War III was being waged, I attended a nearby Bible church on my own. Every morning I woke early, before everyone else in my family, to read the Bible and pray before getting ready for school. As I noted in my first Bible (a gift from a friend at that church, dated Christmas 1958), I prayed for, among other things, patience, understanding, and strength.

Today, more than sixty years later, I still pray for many things every morning: “empathy and compassion” toward those in need, “patience and tolerance” toward those who are difficult, “endurance and fortitude” for myself. But most of all, I pray for wisdom. This is what the world needs above all else now, I believe, and we older women have a responsibility to provide it.

So forget glamor, mis amigas. Scrap the depressing mirrors, please. We have work to do. The world, which is in a bit of a mess at the moment, I’m sure you’ll agree, is hungry for our wise-older-women-wisdom. This is our calling now. This is why we’re still alive. We can – and must – lead the way. It’s International Women’s Day. Let’s claim our power. Let’s mobilize.

33 thoughts on “Subject or Object?”

  1. Dear Bon,
    On TV last night I saw a study that found older women are far happier than older men. I immediately thought about you. As long as I’ve known you, you have created your own life out of your own agency. Your message here is crucially important and should be heard by both men and women.
    Love,
    Paul

  2. We were all glamorous. Some still are. But the shell turns for all os us, including the beautiful young woman in the restaurant.

  3. When I see attractive younger women flaunting their youth, I think “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, used it to wash the car yesterday.” On to other things bigger than me.

  4. Oh, Bonnie, I loved this! Two things I loved: “A subject is someone who experiences her own agency, who is aware of how she can and does have an impact on others and how she is, ultimately, the author of her own life.” That quote is so profound. And I admit, I laughed out loud when you said, “that ship sailed years ago…”

  5. Such wonderful words! I find myself wanting to capture sentences to save. Thank you Bonnie for your pride and wisdom.
    Always your friend, Kate

  6. So glad my email program has flags so I could find and read this blogpost. Of course the grammar approach caught my attention immediately, but what a terrific metaphor—subject and object—for power and authenticity in our own lives.

      1. Thanks, Bonnie! Yes, indeed, we are the authors of our own lives! Love that sentence. And we get to choose our styles, to boot!

          1. Ha! I thought she was referring to the kind of style you get from a style guide. You know, “Are you Chicago style or AP?” I’ve always threatened to write a style guide that covers all the vagaries of my own style and title it “Taos Style.” I’m currently reading “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” Benjamin Dreyer is making fun of himself with that title, but I’ve only disagreed with two very small things so far, and I’m at least a third of the way through the book. It’s fun reading.

          2. Barb, your comment made me recall that I once gave my UNM students a mind map (printed from Visual Thesaurus online) of the word “style.” Fascinating to see how the many meanings of the word branched out. So, to answer your question, maybe those students will remember!

  7. Yep, here’s to weighing in – I guess if I had a friend who was willing to describe my style (I’m known for my seriousness – well, and maybe a little sarcasm), that friend might say my style as my own author would be non-fiction. Definitely not poetic, or prose, and I don’t practice fiction well; that being said – I wasn’t actually referring to clothing, but I can see how it prompted the comments. Thanks, y’all

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