I am midway through the autumn of my life.
Depends on how you orient yourself to the moment.
Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now - flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.
My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.
Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.
I figure I have three options:
1. I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
2. I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
3. I could learn how to be old.
When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie
Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?
Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.
Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.
Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.
The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.
It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.
While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!
Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?
The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. - Carl Jung
What about Option 2?
Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.
I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.
“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”
I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf
Which brings me to the matter of purpose - Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.
I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.
I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:
“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”
But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.
When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.
A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:
“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”
Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done - or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?
In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:
“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”
I was stumped…
And then wrote her my response:
“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.
I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:
An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. - Philip Larkin
My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.
In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and - to my point - how to survive.
In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.
In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.
I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”
The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.
But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.
Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.
My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.
Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.
At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.
"Old age, calm, expanded,
broad with the haughty
breadth of the universe.
Old age flowing free with the
delicious near-by freedom of death.
I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it
pours in the great sea." – Walt Whitman
Sign up here for future thought-provoking essays.
If you believe my work has value, please consider supporting it.