Thursday, 13 December 2012
In Search of a Fulfilling Old Age
In a post last week, I concluded with this:
”What I want from this stage of my life is to fully live it, be in it, wallow in it. I want to understand its uniqueness, discover how it is different from what came before, experience the changes – whatever they may be - and come to know what it is to be old.”
You can imagine, then, my surprise when in the mail that afternoon a small-format, little gem of a book arrived and on page three of the Prologue, wherein the writer explains what he is going to tell us in the ensuing eight chapters, I read:
”I have returned to this Greek island on a personal quest: I am an old man myself now – seventy-three – and I want to figure out the most satisfying way to live this stage of my life.”
If you have been reading this blog for more than a week, you have already guessed I was hooked, and I knew immediately that nothing else was going to get done in my life until I finished reading the 167 pages of Travels with Epicurus – A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
Three pages later, I wondered if the author had been reading my mind:
”This new old-age credo is everywhere I looked. If someone even casually mentioned that she was getting on in years, she was immediately chastened: 'You're not old. You're still in your prime!' She was informed that 'Seventy is the new fifty.' She was admonished not to 'give in' to old age...
“I suspect if I were to take this popularly accepted route, I would miss out on something deeply significant: I would deny myself a unique an invaluable state of life...I would miss for eternity ever simply being authentically and contentedly old.
Who IS this guy? I wondered, this thoroughly and specifically like-minded soul.
His name is Daniel Klein. He studied philosophy at Harvard, has written some popular books with droll titles including Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar and best of all – far from being an ivory-tower scholar (well, he may be that too for all I know) – spent some amount of time in his past writing jokes for the likes of Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin.
And so it is, with the playful sensibility such a background implies, that Klein takes us along on his personal pursuit of an authentic way to live old age without losing the gravitas such an endeavor requires too.
We learn a lot about how Epicurus and some other ancient philosophers thought old age should be lived and some modern ones too. About two films – Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Felllini's 8-1/2 - I know now, thanks to Klein, I saw when I was way too young to really understand them.
For me, who dislikes all things sentimental, there is an important section on Frank Sinatra's ability to “convey nostalgia of the highest order” that may change my perspective:
”Even as a young man...Sinatra...had an uncommon gift for expressing the phenomenon of looking back at the joys and sorrows of past romances from the vantage point of a meditative and wistful old age...
“Sinatra is sharing with us how it feels to recall being a young man blissful with love and hope. He relives his feelings from those years and, by God, they were absolutely wonderful.
“Yet it does an old man good to realize that was then and this is now. What remains, the memory of young love as seen through the filter of subsequent experience, has a sweetness of its own.”
Klein is, of course, correct and I will not again apply my automatic pejorative to the idea of nostalgia (except when it's called for).
For me, there are wake up calls on nearly every page of Travels With Epicurus, new (to me) thoughts on old ideas about age that you will undoubtedly read more of on these webpages as time goes by. Klein has been pondering many of the same things I do about getting old, but he is a smarter and more unique thinker than I am.
Among his several conclusions at the end of his Greek isle odyssey, Klein writes:
”I find myself feeling like Guido in 8-1/2: 'Everything is just as it was before. Everything is confused again but this confusion is me.' I cannot help wondering if my quest for a relevant philosophy of authentic old age was nothing more than a befuddled old geezer barking at the moon.”
I take Klein's point but I don't agree. There is much wisdom in this little book served with a lot of wit.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Clothespins