Rodin’s La Belle Heaulmiere

Rodin’s La Belle Heaulmiere

It’s very curious how little we change throughout our lives.

Further, it’s more curious how we stereotype people into groups. We have Democrats and Republicans, heterosexuals and homosexuals, young and old, etcetera and etcetera. Especially curious are generation labels; the greatest generation, the silent generation, the baby boomers, generation X and millennials. Each group has characteristics and we tend to expect people classified into a particular group to behave as if they were following the stereotypical playbook of their group.

Back to my first statement; we change little during the course of our lives. Is that true? Does not growing up, going to school, serving in the military, getting married, raising kids, having careers, retiring, etcetera cause us to change? I think not. Theses are all experiences and they become part of our experience base, but truly we are the same our whole lives.

I was reminded of this yesterday. When I was in the Air Force 43 years ago, my wife and I were friends with another couple. Over the years we remained friends with half of that couple and she arrived yesterday for a visit. It’s been awhile since my wife last visited her in Ohio and I had not seen her in maybe 15 years. She walked up to me at the airport, spoke, and for a long second I did not recognize her. We change physically. Then it clicked and my friend of 43 years ago was standing there. Later, we shared the observation that our lives evolve and our bodies change but our perception of ourselves remains the same. In our minds, we are constant.

We are also unique. Society puts my friend, my wife and I generally into the baby boomer group but none of us fit a stereotype. This is the danger of groups, especially for health care providers who serve groups of people. There is a danger to begin to think about members of our service group as fitting a particular mold and pattern.

I think this stereotyped thinking is most prevalent among those working with the elderly. Older people tend to stand out due to their appearance and often to obvious loss of physical agility and perhaps mental acuteness. Also, older people usually do not fit our most prevalent stereotype that of the beautiful person who as a female is young, slim, graceful or the male who is tall, young, dashing. Thus, older people get stereotyped from first glance and that leads to a failure to fully appreciate the unique and fascinating human who lives inside. In the novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein describes a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Celle Qui Fut La Belle Heaulmiere (She Who Was the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife) that on the surface reinforces our shortsightedness but with mindfulness increases our potential to see farther.

“What do you think of this bronze?” asked Jubal.

Anne looked at Rodin’s masterpiece, and said slowly, “When I first saw it, I thought it was horrible. But I have come to the conclusion that it may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

“Anybody can see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at the old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is … and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be … more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart … no matter what the merciless hours have done to her.”