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old aging

Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe

I’m old. There, I said it. At age 81 there’s no denying it. Five and a half years ago, for the LA Progressive site, I wrote “Aging: Myths, Reality, and Nonsense.” But, motivated by Arthur Krystal’s recent “Why We Can’t Tell the Truth About Aging,” a few new words are needed, especially about old aging (let’s say over 65) as a heroic quest. But first a summary of Krystal’s essay.

In general, he thinks that most of the many writings he cites in his useful overview are “putting the best face” possible on aging. But “the optimistic narrative of pro-aging writers doesn’t line up with the dark story told by the human body.” By the time we are in our seventies, serious decline has set in. He cites the author of “Why I Hope to Die at 75”: By that age “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Krystal adds, “long life is a gift. But I’m not sure we’re going to be grateful for it.” And “normal aging is bad enough, but things become dire if dementia develops…for those of us who have cared for spouses or parents with dementia, it’s not always a simple matter to know on whom the burden falls the heaviest.”

Occasionally Krystal furnishes us a more positive quote such as the following from the Frenchwoman Simone de Beauvoir: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning—devotion to individuals, to groups, or to causes—social, political, intellectual, or creative work.” I like that quote a lot, and since I wrote my “Myths” essay in 2014 two great causes have emerged as more important than ever and they are linked—removing Donald Trump (by impeachment or the ballot box) from the presidency and restoring with great vigor our government’s fight against climate change.

Since I wrote my “Myths” essay in 2014 two great causes have emerged as more important than ever and they are linked—removing Donald Trump (by impeachment or the ballot box) from the presidency and restoring with great vigor our government’s fight against climate change.

In my earlier essay, I referred to a cherished wise man whom I was privileged to have known, Howard McClusky, the first president of the U. S. Adult Education Association. One of his favorite quotes about how to live in one’s latter years was similar to de Beauvoir’s. It was, “To live so generously and unselfishly that the prospect of personal death—the night of the ego, it might be called—looks and feels less important than the secure knowledge that one has built for a broader, longer future than any one ego ever could encompass. Through children, through contributions to the culture, through friendships—these are ways in which human beings can achieve enduring significance for their actions which goes beyond the limit of their own skins and their own lives.”

Since first reading that quote many years ago, I have become convinced that one of our main jobs in life as we add on years is to gradually reduce our egos—Trump’s colossal egotism is one of my main complaints about him.

Two points I mentioned in my “Myths” essay, but now wish to stress and amplify relate to transcendence and heroism.

I wrote then that “McClusky believed that one of the basic needs of older people was that of transcendence in order to rise above declining physical powers and decreasing life expectancy.” I also stated that “the psychologist Abraham Maslow often wrote about such transcendence and the ‘self-actualization’ that accompanied it, which was most evidenced by older people.” As examples of old individuals who achieved transcendence, with the help of history, literature, and music, I cited the writer Carl Sandburg and the helper-of-the-poor and social activist Dorothy Day.

More recently I wrote a much longer essay (14 pages) entitled Wisdom, Death, and the Transcendental: Beauty, Nature, the Arts, and Love.”After mentioning various means of achieving transcendence, I zeroed in on three that have had special meaning for me as I have aged: nature, the arts, and love. I ended the essay by quoting some lines from poet Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great”about how such people loved, and manifested a “flowering of the spirit.” They left, he said, “the vivid air signed with their honour.” My conclusion was that “if we too live in such a manner, we can help make the earth a better place, and the effects of our words and deeds can continue to reverberate long after our bodies are no more.”

old aging

Dorothy Day

Readers who wish to think more about how (in McClusky words) transcendence can help us “rise above declining physical powers and decreasing life expectancy” can examine my essay further. But now let’s turn to my last and main point, one that I barely mentioned earlier, but now think is most important—old aging as a heroic quest.

Earlier, I had asked “What other age [besides old age] requires as much courage as the one in which we are most likely to face diseases like cancer and alzheimer’s, perhaps a nursing-home existence, and certainly death? And without the consolation of hearing any talk about our ‘wounded warriors,’ ‘fallen heroes,’ or being honored with any medals or parades.” Now let me go further.

For some oldsters the need for heroism is greater than for others, for example those with afflictions like cancer or dementia, or those caring “for spouses or parents with dementia” who Krystal mentions. According to the American Cancer Society, “Cancer risk increases with age, peaking in men and women in their 80s.”An Alzheimer’s Association 2018 report estimated that “5.5 million Americans age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia,” including “17 percent of people age 75-84, and 32 percent of people age 85 and older.” That same report indicates that “more than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias,”and that caregivers are often spouses or children, the spouses most often old themselves. The extent of attention and patience required of caregivers, especially for a loved-one in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, can hardly be imagined by someone who has had no experience with the disease. If the care is to be done lovingly and well it requires behavior that is truly heroic.

Of course, some old people are luckier than others, but all face increasing physical and mental difficulties, and the older they get the more the troubles increase. Many oldsters react with a grim stoicism, trying not to be too much of a burden on others. But the more I think about it the more I’m convinced that old aging should be viewed as a heroic quest.

For some guidance, I turned to one old and one new source. The old one was a book first published more than a half-century ago, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There I read that heroes are born when they are faced with “a call to adventure.” The “familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.”

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Rather than preparing ourselves for the many challenges of old aging-- whether physical or mental decline, sickness, caregiving, or dying--too many of us cling to our old ways, unwilling to face up to our aging. As Campbell says about one called to heroism, “Often in actual life . . . we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative.”

The great danger is that as we encounter old aging we reject the challenge, pretend like we are not getting older, and succumb to self-pity. Viewing such aging as an opportunity for heroism is a much better alternative. In his biography of John Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen wrote, “John F. Kennedy was a happy president. Happiness, he often said, paraphrasing Aristotle, is the full use of one's faculties along lines of excellence, and to him the presidency offered the ideal opportunity to pursue excellence.” We could paraphrase this quote and say, “happiness is the full use of one's faculties along lines of excellence, and being old offers the ideal opportunity to maximize one’s faculties and be heroic.” It also offers us an opportunity to become wiser people.

A newer source than either Campbell or Sorensen’s book is psychologist Tom Lombardo’s Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution (2017). It is not especially concerned with aging, but with creating a happy future, both individually and for humans as a whole. His chief message is that we create a good future “by developing a core set of character virtues, most notably and centrally wisdom” (Lombardo’s italics). And he thinks that “a hero story is similar to a wisdom narrative; a recounting of positive growth through adversity.” Among the character virtues Lombardo identifies are the following: love, compassion, empathy, humility, creativity, imagination, hope, courage, self-awareness, self-control, self-responsibility, truth-seeking, realistic idealism, honesty, curiosity, a sense of wonder, temperance, tenacity, and (most importantly of all) wisdom. He also reminds us that “a wise person exhibits a balance and integration of the character virtues. Emphasizing one character virtue to the exclusion of other virtues is not an indication of wisdom.”

Another useful insight offered by Lombardo is the importance of what he calls the “personal narrative,” the autobiographical story we tell ourselves to “give order, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” He also writes that “the most powerful way to generate change is to change the personal narrative,” and reinterpreting our past narrative can be “a springboard for creating a more positive future narrative.”

What I gain from this insight is that we oldsters should reimagine ourselves as being on a heroic quest. As Campbell states, the hero will face many tests of his/her courage, intelligence, resilience, and resourcefulness. Old age demands all these qualities, and even more our ability to love (the greatest wisdom virtue) to the max--it seems so much easier to love when we are intoxicated with the physical beauty and vitality of youth, or even middle age.

To pursue an old-aging heroic quest we need imagination and that can be aided by role models. A few of mine I’ve already mentioned, McClusky, Sandburg, and Day. The last two, of course, I never knew, but read a great deal of and by them and wrote long biographical essays about them (see here and here), as well as a shorter one on McClusky. In addition, the words of the Greek hero Ulysses as imagined by Tennyson in his poem of the old warrior, appeal to me:

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In an earlier review of the French film Amour, I ended quoting those words and then wrote,

Like the old Ulysses, those of us who are old still have “some work of noble note” that “may yet be done.” Knowing that our days are numbered—maybe months, maybe years, but at most a few more decades—there is still much for us to do. . . . the main thing is love.

It may be a “hard, hard doctrine,” as it was for Georges [the loving old spouse] in Amour, but if so it is all the more heroic, more a true test of character than the young romantic love we once experienced. And then there’s the love we should have for all those who will probably outlive us for many decades, including our children and grandchildren. What could be nobler [and more heroic] than trying our hardest to leave them a Planet Earth as peaceful, just, and sustainable as possible?

In closing this essay I would be remiss if I failed to mention one last point—humor. I’m mindful of still one more fictional character who sought heroism and many thought foolish, Don Quixote. In imaging ourselves on a heroic quest, we must not take ourselves too seriously, and we must always be willing to laugh at ourselves. A good role model for that is the humorist and former Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald, who died of kidney failure with dignity and humor (but without part of one leg) in 2007 at age 81.

walter moss

Walter Moss

His friend, former NBC anchor, Tom Brokaw wrote that his “humor was a road map to essential truths…I've never had a richer appreciation of his friendship and presence among us than during the final passage of his life, when, facing death, he taught us anew lessons in courage, grace, friendship, family and the mysteries of the human body, laughing all the way.” That’s what I call a heroic death. Unlike the ending of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”—Not with a bang but a whimper”—Buchwald died triumphant, not whimpering.

Walter G. Moss