“Old and Young Woman” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—1921

She looks upset, doesn’t she, the old woman. While the expression on the young woman’s face suggests…concern? Surprise? Maybe both. Maybe more.

Clearly, something is amiss.

Perhaps the old woman is in pain. There are scissors on the table. Did her hands stiffen and fail when she attempted to use them? Is that why her fingers are curled? Or, was she suddenly stricken in a way that alarmed her young companion? Perhaps she lashed out at an unintended slight, a reaction that caught the young woman off-guard.

It’s impossible to tell, as suggestive as the art is. The dynamics between people, especially old and young, can be complex and prone to misunderstandings. An old woman’s advice can feel irrelevant and judgmental to a younger one, while a young woman’s assistance can feel condescending and demeaning to an older one.

I’ve been young and certain, and now I’m older and acutely aware of youthful certainty’s unfortunate side: assumption—that older people are unable to learn and adapt, that they are all hearing impaired, and must be treated like children, and addressed as “Honey,” or “Dear,” and have their seat belts fastened for them. And I can’t help but wring my hands, and sometimes lash out…to their surprise.

Old and young woman. I know them both. They stare back at me from every mirror.

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