Where has our sympathy gone as we age?

My mother is one of the most unsympathetic people I’ve ever met. I often go to her and tell her about something, and she’ll give me a very matter-of-fact response. You see, my mum doesn’t feel sympathy any more – she’s been through it all, apparently. But is this a common thing as we age?

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I remember when Steve Irwin died, my mum told me that Terry Irwin obviously didn’t feel upset about her husband’s death. Despite having no way of knowing that, she wrote Terry off as an unsympathetic cow and constantly would talk about how she wasn’t expressing her sadness and that must have meant she wasn’t grieving. It was a cruel thing to say but that is just Mum – she doesn’t seem to know or care about whether what she says is rational or not, she just says it. Similarly, one of our family friends’ husband left her for another woman. Instead of consoling her, Mum tried to think of all the reasons the friend’s husband could have left her. She decided it was because she didn’t give him enough sex, and tried to remind me that the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t give my partner what he needed. Women can’t just expect to have a husband if they don’t give them what they want, she would say. But she isn’t the only person I know who has this callous way of responding to news they should be sympathetic about.

My husband’s aunt is much the same and, as she is a twin, she is still a regular fixture in our family get-togethers. If someone dies, she’ll find a way to shrug it off and to imply that she has been through it so no one else needs a chance to grieve. She got over it, so everyone else should. When her best friend’s son died, she told her a year later that it was time to get over it and move on. That is very nasty and it shocked me to hear it, although it didn’t surprise me. It is as if they can’t see two sides to an argument and they don’t want to. They like giving the hardline because it’s quick and no nonsense.

Why are some people so bitter in their later years? When I searched for an answer, I found something very interesting in a response to a Quora question: “A few months ago, my Chinese friend was explaining some new vocabulary to me. A person who is “round” is very easy to get along with, but a person “with corners” is rigid and unpleasant. I tried to practice the new vocabulary in a sentence and said, “As people get older, they get corners”, but she said, “No, that’s not right. As people get older, they become wise”. In Chinese culture, people gain respect as they age. Their experiences give them wisdom, and they are an important part of the family. They don’t get bitter. In [Western] culture, people lose respect as they age. They’re no longer vibrant go-getters or visionary early adopters; they’re “dinosaurs”. They’re ignored, left alone in empty houses, or even worse, mocked”.

Could this be why we have some bitter and sad people in society? Do they simply feel lonely and unwanted and use their bitterness or lack of empathy as a defence mechanism? Tell us what you think below.