The two youngest of our kids shared a riddle with me lately. “What goes up and never comes down?”
The answer? “Your age.”
At this age and time when we have adopted the Western concept of time, that is, to reckon the seconds, minutes, hours, days and year as the prime indicators of aging, the riddle hits the nail on the head, to be clichéd about it.
Yet in indigenous communities, aging was not always reckoned solely according to the passage of time. The number of years after one’s birth, or biological age, is often just a footnote to one’s “age,” and its corresponding effect upon one’s status in the community. That status defines one’s responsibilities to the community, what taboos apply and what do not, as well as how one is expected to act. The applicable status to one individual has its necessary stereotypes, arising from the expectations.
It was the practical way, for there were no calendars or clocks to measure Western time. We had the seasons, but counting them was hardly done, and even our number system was simple and limited.
In Sagada,(perhaps in many of the other communities in the Cordillera as well), children are those who are under marriageable age, or before puberty. While indeed in earlier times arranged marriages may happen before puberty, it was generally assumed that marriage should happen after puberty.
After puberty, individuals are commonly considered adults, and expected to act as such, with much greater responsibilities to the community.
The status of being marriageable, in the vernacular referred to as “baballo” (male) and “babassang” (female) is retained until such time that the person marries.
Married couples gain another status and other responsibilities as well. Referred to as “binnayan,” one of the expectations of the community is procreation, to fulfill the species’ survival instinct. After a child or children is or are born to a couple, the couple gains more status, and are generally considered to be of greater “age” than childless couples, regardless of biological age.
Childless couples may actually revert to their former status as bachelors and bachelorettes, to make possible their marriage to other people, hopefully to be able to beget children in the new union.
As their children grow up and reach maturity, a couple gains more status when their offspring marry. The status gives them much more clout in the community’s affairs. The man becomes an “am-ama,” and assumes many roles previously denied him. The taboos and prohibitions placed upon the “binnayan” are lifted, and the couple are now allowed to participate in many activities previously not allowed them.
When all their children are married off, the man becomes a “lakay,” a term denoting wisdom and venerable respect. Perhaps the closest English word to describe the status is “ageless.”
Each of these various stages in aging gave equal treatment to all those with a particular status, regardless of biological age. Thus, while one may be old in the Western sense, but yet unmarried, his status is the same as that with someone who is just past puberty. The roles of childless couples and the taboos in effect over them remain so, even if they age in years, and are actually considered “young” by the community. So with those whose children are not yet married.
Yet biological age is not entirely set aside. Another term is used for it, however, “eteng.” “Ma-eteng” means to age, and “na-eteng” means old in years. However, this reckoning only marginally affects one’s status.
Now that our communities have come to adopt the Western concept of time, we place more importance upon biological age in our reckoning of maturity, wisdom, and other expectations we associate with growing old.
In the same vein, however, many of us have adopted other Western corollaries, vanity being one of them. As we grow older in Western time, we also grow concerned over other things as baldness, gray hair, growing fat, losing teeth, losing memory, and body parts going south.
One of the supposed benefits of development is increasing life expectancy, but we are afraid of growing old and spend much of our extended life delaying the inevitable. We become so afraid of aging that we deny it.