Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Role of Role Models

"...a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration,
his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have
every reason to doubt, saying "Yes, someone like me
can do this."
~Sonia Sotomayor

"It just makes a difference to see someone who looks like you
doing what you want to do."
~Nia Wordlaw, Pilot

The subject of role models has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since I asked a group of women, including several older women, to name some of their role models.  When they - and I - struggled to come up with examples, I recognized the need to give this more thought.

I see now that I could have framed the question much better.  I could have first presented the dictionary definition - role model: n. a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.  The key word that makes a big difference - imitated, not only respected or admired, but imitated.  How many people in my life have I been moved by enough to want to imitate in any way?

After more deliberation, I realized that I could have asked a more specific question, a more meaningful question - 'Who are the role models for you at this stage in your life?''  Heaven knows, in a forever young* society obsessed with success and beauty, positive role models for older women, and increasingly for men, are hard to come by.  Betty White?  Jane Fonda? Tony Bennett?  Madeline Albrecht.  Most of us don't have their resources, their access to support. Then there are the commercials for older men and women that promote medicines, emergency alert systems, assisted living homes, adult diapers.  "Help me, I've fallen and can't get up."  I know these speak to a certain reality.  But all the statistics I'm reading suggest this is a reality for a small percentage of people over 65.  Not me.  Not my friends.

So, I turned to quotes, scouring hundreds.  The Sonia Sotomayor quote got me thinking about older women from my past who left their mark, even though I did not consciously seek to imitate them at the time.  Women who presented a picture of aging well. Mrs. W., in her 70's when I was in my 20's, intellectually and creatively curious, still weaving, knitting her husband's argyle socks, reading Thackeray and French novels with one eye, the other lost to Glaucoma.  Jane L, a gentle Quaker, then in her late 60's, whose counsel during my divorce I have called upon in subsequent crises, whose equilibrium I've never matched but certainly use as a yardstick.  M and L, ahead of me in the stream by a dozen years, both interesting and interested in politics, art, literature, the larger world that I had ignored, so intent when I first met them on my business, my family.  

Which brings me to the Nia Wordlaw quote that I came upon this morning while watching the PBS special, The Women's List: American Masters.  I suddenly recognized that I do have role models and am blessed that they are at hand.  Women my age, women ahead in years and experience.  I am more engaged in my community because of these women.  I am reading better literature because of these women.  I am more concerned with public policy issues.  I have a renewed sense of purpose that has been missing in recent years. Thanks to these women.

Ultimately, however, the most important result of all this musing may be to remember that we all have the opportunity to be role models in some small but important way, and often are without realizing it or intending to do so.  So the question in my mind right now - what kind of role model am I?

 *the forever young society - coined by Michael Gurian in The Wonder of Aging

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