When I was 11 or so, I recall my mom telling me her favorite actor was not Gregory Peck, or Errol Flynn, but Gary Cooper. It was 1964, and the only actor who mattered to me was Sean Connery (James Bond) so I never bothered to ask what appealed to her about some guy named Gary Cooper who wasn’t a secret agent.
But thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I would later learn that Gary Cooper typically played the role of Mr. Everyday Man-of-Honor, a regular guy who finds himself in the position of weighing his own sacrifice vs. the greater good and ultimately choosing the latter. Sort of like James Bond, except without the gadgets, glamor, irony, intrigue, ties and tuxedos.
The first image above shows Gary Cooper portraying Marshal Will Kane in the 1952 film High Noon. Kane mustered his courage to try, single-handedly, to save his dirt-poor town from being overrun by rank desperadoes. One of the many timid townspeople observed, “When he dies, this town dies, too.” Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance.
For my mom, it wasn’t Cooper’s performance that won her over but the mode of behavior he conveyed. Or so I surmise.
The second image shows Cooper portraying New York Yankees ballplayer Lou Gehrig in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees. Gehrig was forced to retire from baseball in 1939, due to the progression of the disease (ALS) that would be named after him. Soon after his retirement, Gehrig delivered an emotional farewell to a packed stadium, concluding with, “For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Lou Gehrig died two years later at age 37.
Gary Cooper, in the tribute film, delivered Gehrig’s last lines earnestly yet unmawkishly. The scene was the highlight of the film. Plenty of tears were shed and Cooper was again nominated for best actor, having won the previous year for Sergeant York.
Today, one might call Gary Cooper the Tom Hanks of the Greatest Generation, except with more sex appeal. He was not a gunslinger, nor a ballplayer, nor a war hero, but just a man called upon to do what needed to be done, without complaint.
• • • •
Except this post isn’t about Gary Cooper but the archetype he represented: the steadfast, buttoned-up, dedicated-to-task person who conceals his vulnerability, lest it open a path to being hurt or, worse, be seen as weak or asking too much of others.
Cooper’s roles reflected and reinforced the values of Depression/WWII movie audiences, including my mom and dad. They could not help but pass those values on to me, just as millions of their cohort did with their children, with varying success. We Boomers were legacy students in the College of Hard Knocks that our parents graduated from.
• • • •
With respect, may I share some memories that have stuck with me, of dinner-table talk in our house when I was too young to participate but old enough to take things in. One of my dad’s favorite topics was his bursitis, where the pain started and where it ended, from his shoulder all the way down to here. Then my mom would add something about her neck or arthritis. By dinner’s end, their conversation would turn to unreasonable bosses, union grievances and unlucky bridge hands. I didn’t have much to complain about — I was a kid.
I recall reacting to the aches-and-pains talk with a mix of annoyance and, as I grew older, some detachment. I didn’t see the point of the negativity — were things that bad? It didn’t seem that way at other times.
For those reasons, I didn’t much look forward to dinner, unless my parents were going out and I got to have a Swanson’s TV Dinner or a can of Franco-American Spaghetti.
• • • •
A few years ago, some out-of-town friends were visiting, and one of them made a remark which amused me at first but didn’t sit well with me later. A health topic had come up and she made a comment about organ recitals. I asked her to explain, and I learned she was referring to the enumeration of one’s aches and pains, in the manner of my parents at our dinner table.
I hadn’t heard this play-on-words before and I found it clever; but I soon understood that she meant it pejoratively, to dismiss health complaints as the province of those who don’t take care of themselves — and who would want to admit to that? And who could possibly endure listening to that?
This stirred me in a way, and it got me thinking more compassionately about why people talk — or choose not to talk — about their aches and pains and their health in general. [A]
• • • •
I recall, when my mom would get a call from a friend, and the caller asked how she was, Mom would say, “Oh, can’t complain.” [Her exact pitch and cadence is recorded in my synapses — if anyone would like me to play it back, just press the center of my glabella.] Can’t complain was both a byword and catchphrase in my parents’ time. Can’t complain is what you were supposed to say instead of stating any facts about how you actually felt. Can’t complain was said because you literally can’t complain — otherwise, you could be judged weak and/or wanting.
I can see how the hard times of the Depression, followed by the horrors of World War II — including the survivor’s guilt of those who served at the front and saw fellow soldiers fall — taught my parents’ generation that complaining was not only pointless but self-indulgent. After all we’ve been through, what’s a bum shoulder? Or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
My parents evidently trusted one another enough to air their health annoyances at our 1960s dinner table, but rarely elsewhere, and later not even with me. It was maddening how little they shared about their medical issues with their grown-up children. One day I found out my mom had been in the hospital the week before and she had said nothing about it to us. Both my parents downplayed whatever thing was going on, giving us the least information possible. They presumably thought they were sparing us. [B]
How little I knew about their health concerns would become clear when I reached my own “older middle age” and my providers would inquire about my parents’ medical histories. How old was your father when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer? 70? 73 maybe? Did your mom take her thyroid medicine for hyper- or hypothyroidism? She never said. Do you have a family history of macular degeneration? Mom did mention that she didn’t see the TV very well, so she just turned up the volume.
At every new health intake, I sheepishly have to explain how my folks didn’t share much. And I have to admit, I didn’t question much.
Given the state of medical science prior to 1990’s human genome research, my parents may have failed to see the relevance of my knowing their health histories. Fair enough — but I bet it was more their inner Gary Coopers saying, We don’t want to burden you kids. That’s another sound-clip I could play if you press the spot above my glabella.
• • • •
I’d say that the portion of my mental energy budget I spend on health concerns has gone from about 1% of the pie in my twenties to 35-40% today — and I don’t have big issues like diabetes or cancer, or see myself as unhealthy. It’s just all the middling stuff that piles up.
Here I was going to play an organ recital (sorry) of what last month was like, but instead I’ll just say that, in one two-week span, I had 2 dental and 4 medical visits: one a routine checkup, two for chronic conditions, the rest for ad hoc items. Yes, random chance played a part in this, but it is still discouraging to look at one’s calendar and see it choked with health appointments, on top of the physical goings-on.
But even then, my own inner Gary Cooper says, Just a few bad breaks. Other people have it a lot worse. How dare I complain or even mention my troubles. This is the scolding, demon-on-the-shoulder voice we hear when we challenge the health-talk taboo that our Greatest Generation parents ingrained in us.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my sharing last month’s medical dance-card made some readers uncomfortable or even judgmental. Because if someone has it worse — and we all know that millions on this planet have it worse — then one should keep one’s mouth shut out of respect for those with the greater burden. That may not do anything to help them, but it is undignified for us to do otherwise. [C]
• • • •
It is also a reality-denying thing-to-do. To force oneself to stay silent about things that are foremost on one’s mind requires a mental/social disconnect, a walling-off. My parents’ generation may have called this self-discipline, but that already presumes a weakness or temptation to be resisted. Who can rationally or honestly profess a lack of interest in one’s own well-being, except when responding to a crisis? (Or perhaps at the end of one’s life.)
That said, I can think of a number of reasons why people choose not to share health issues, many of which overlap:
- Fear of being judged as weak, pitiful or undignified, as mentioned earlier.
- Fear of being judged a hypochondriac or self-absorbed.
- Fear of being treated casually or with indifference.
- Fear that one’s personal info will be mishandled.
- Shame about not being seen as healthy as others.
- Distrust of the listener, related to the above fears.
- Desire to control the listener’s experience (that is, not bum them out).
- Desire to distract/refocus one’s thoughts on more enjoyable aspects of life.
- Self-censorship based on cultural taboo against health talk.
It’s not my intent to deny any of these reasons, because in our culture there is historical justification for all of them. I would, however, like to address the taboo aspect. It is one thing for a person to choose not to share her health items due to a lack of trust/confidence, or so she can focus on more positive topics. Those are her calls to make. But what I would like to see is a greater receptiveness to hearing others’ health concerns without becoming uncomfortable ourselves and instinctively looking for ways to shut down the conversation. That’s us, enforcing the taboo.
Our own discomfort, which I surmise is the real origin of health-talk taboo, is not beyond us to address. Medical students are now trained (albeit with varying success) how to listen to patients actively and with empathy — it is vital for person-centered care. Guided by the same principles, the friends and acquaintances of those with medical issues (i.e., all of us) have the ability to improve our own skill and comfort level with health talk, which gives us an opportunity to be more present and accepting.
To be clear, I’m not asking people to play doctor or therapist — or ignore the boundaries that others may prefer. My point is that compassionate listening is not the province of health professionals alone. If you treat the other person’s health stories as an annoyance, or tiptoe around them or wave them away, the message you’ve sent is that you are not a listener and probably not a trusted friend. And you will have accomplished your goal of not hearing about the other person’s problems again, if that was indeed your intent.
“But how can I better listen to other people’s problems?” It’s as easy as doing a search for how can I better listen to other people’s problems. Lots of useful sites pop up, including one titled “How to Listen to Someone Else’s Problems.” It’s not a huge stretch. We don’t have to go to medical school. We just have to bury our Gary Coopers, set aside our taboos and stop denying the fact that the older people get, the more their health status tends to occupy their time and minds, and that those concerns are as legit as anyone else’s.
Believe me, we old folks would prefer to attend real organ recitals, if they were any good.
Appendix (not the kind you remove)
In the course of writing this piece, I came across the site Next Avenue which purports to “cover the issues that matter most as we age.” At first glance, Next Avenue looks like one of the better, more practical sites for old people’s concerns. But the article “How to Keep Health Conversations From Becoming the Only Conversations” gave me some pause, as it seems to reinforce the notion that older people are prone to inappropriately (i.e., overly) emphasize their health and mortality. Inappropriately? Who says?
I only now understand how “inappropriately” I was concerned about my parents’ mortality when they were in their final decades and I was in my middle decades. I now say to myself that I could have, with better models, with better training, exhibited more compassion for them instead of rejecting the notion — and their reality — that they would die some day.
Should this article have been titled “In Defense of Complaining?” Maybe. But I saw this more as an opportunity to advocate for compassionate listening — even if you don’t care to talk about your own health. The idea is to move health talk from taboo status to a matter of personal choice, and shift the burden from the sharer to the listener.
In the end, it is so important to have a healthcare provider who listens compassionately and in whom you absolutely trust. That establishes one’s first line of defense and support. In that regard, l consider myself the luckiest patient, Dr. Nicolini.
[A] The organ-recital deplorer is now a former friend, as well as the former friend of my friend who luckily remains a friend. He and I discuss various health issues and events without delving too deeply into them or holding recitals, although any level of sharing would be OK with me, as he knows.
[B] It wasn’t that my parents disregarded their ailments. I recall my dad keeping detailed notes about his medical issues, with dates, times, etc. printed in his usual tiny block letters. But the extent of their concern had limits: as far as I know, they rarely if ever sought care, or even second opinions, beyond their familiar hometown doctors and hospitals, when excellent care was within easy reach in Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Mom was notorious for visiting her doctor, getting a prescription, picking it up at Thrift Drug, and then not bothering to take the pills because, as she said, doctors don’t do anything for you anyway. My sister and I filled a kitchen trash bag with probably 100 bottles of un-taken pills when we cleaned out the house.
[C] Which is why, even in this article, I pulled my punches about giving readers more information about my health than they may have wanted.