I feel like I’m way too young to have a creeping fear of my own mortality, but every year around my birthday it happens anyway. 

This year the feeling is more acute than usual, I think because I’ve spent a good deal of time with my aging grandparents over the holidays. They’re interesting people, but full of the kind of stubborn attitude and reckless self-reliance that you’d expect from people who came of age in the years following the Depression. I find it a tremendous exercise in patience to talk to them (and in particular to my grandmother) about politics; they’ve bought that myth of the self-made man wholesale. I wasn’t proud of it, but last night I finally lost my cool and just walked away mid-sentence from an argument about public pensions.

I know it’s not right to think that I know any better than them, and I should work on listening to elders in my life more. It’s so consistently shocking to me though that the rhetoric of the right wing is so effective at captivating otherwise thoughtful, intelligent, empathetic people like my grandparents.

I’m always jarred to see them spouting talking points about “entitled school teachers” or denying climate change, certain that the whole problem was some vast liberal conspiracy that only AM talk radio can uncover. And it makes me sad: as momentarily exasperated as I was, I felt really protective of them last night. These beliefs aren’t ones they’ve had all their lives, after all. Rather, it’s like they’ve spent the last decade steeped in fear: of immigrants, of science, of the government, of change. And the future is frightening, surely, but frightening in ways likely exacerbated by the kinds of politicians my grandparents are made to support. 

As they become a bit more vulnerable and elderly, they fear that others will take advantage of them, and they take pride in their mistrust of institutions, the taxman, the state. What I find startling is that the political line of thinking they’ve adopted in this light is one which appears literally hell-bent on dismantling whatever remaining state systems exist to actually support them. In other words, they’ve been sold just the political myths that most dramatically undermine the institutions designed to help people in their situation.

I really worry that one day I’ll be afraid enough to believe stories like that too (or that I’m ignorant enough to fail to recognize the ways I already do believe stories like that).