That is the title of a new book by German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid. I quoted from it last June when I wrote about the value of habit; Schmid includes an entire chapter on that.
I was reading an advance copy then and told you that when an English translation became available in the U.S., I would let you know. That time has arrived.
The subtitle of the book is “On Gelassenheit” and the definition of that word is critical to enjoying this lovely little book. Schmid begins by explaining that there is no directly equivalent word in English. It combines, he says, such meanings as serenity, equanimity, mellowness, calmness, tranquility and other related ideas.
The goal of his book, translated into English by Michael Eskin, is to show us how to bypass the ageist, forever-young culture that diminishes every one of us (yes, in Germany too) when we cross that invisible threshold into old age, and by aspiring to gelassenheit, live with and embrace growing old.
”It may actually be the case,” writes Schmid in the preface, “that gelassenheit only becomes possible as we grow older.
“After all, it is easier to be gelassen when no longer everything is at stake, when our hormones are no longer raging, when we have a lifetime's worth of experience, a broadened outlook and a time-tested sense for people and things to rely on.”
Toward this end, Schmid provides us with 10 lessons in 10 chapters that are thoughtful, inspiring, enjoyable, educational and fun.
I wouldn't be writing about this book if it were not all those things and more - Schmid and I agree on almost everything about ageing and I'm eager to share some of it with you.
As old hands at this blog know, I do not review books. I write about ones I like and this time, it makes sense to let Schmid do the talking.
He quickly walks us through the first three quarters of life and then discusses the final one, pulling no punches. Like me, many of you will be familiar with items in this passage:
”I myself tend to impatiently hurry past the elderly on the street, they are simply too slow for a 'junior senior' like me...I simply cannot imagine that before long I will be one of them...
“But I have also noticed of late that I have taken to keeping my hand close to the banister when walking up and down stairs, on the off chance that I might trip...
“I fumble in my pockets for keys that I never put there...I now have to hold the newspaper at arm's length...
“A hearing aid? Never! I don't mind no longer hearing everything – in fact, it is a relief not to have to respond to everything all the time.
“What is annoying though, is the impatience of those around me, who begrudge me this newfound freedom.”
There are joys in old age, explains Schmid, humble pleasures we hardly took time to appreciate in the hubbub of youth and middle age. The smell of freshly mown grass, a good cup of coffee, a glass of wine. Memories to be indulged in too and written down for oneself and others. Along with sex and conversation:
”...our libido changes with age: the length we used to go to placate our raging hormones is something we no longer understand, jumping each other doesn't happen that often anymore...
“...which means that sex could finally be purely a medium of communication, inspiration and exultation. More and more, though, conversation takes over that role.”
Yes. I didn't know that has been happening to me until I read that passage. Schmid continues:
”Our waning potency can be elegantly glossed over: 'I'm just not interested in it anymore!' Certainly there are pills that will reignite desire, but do we really want this if it doesn't happen on its own?...
“Sex becoming less important may even contribute to more relaxed friendships between the sexes.”
I'll attest to that.In another chapter, Schmid takes on the related issue of touch, that although we don't discuss it much, it is a source of energy and strength throughout our lives but the opportunity for it diminishes in old age.
”The truth is: our culture, which promotes and idolizes the fragrant and unblemished complexion, turns old people into 'untouchables', as though touching them would lead to 'contracting' old age and consequently, death.”
Hardly anyone touches old people and as I related here in the past, touch is so powerful that when I booked a massage to help alleviate the lack of touch in my life, it was all I could do to not burst into tears in relief - it felt so good.
Schmid suggests massage as an antidote to so little touch in elders' lives along with the company of pets and paying attention to the touch of water in the shower or when swimming, etc. But he returns then to conversation, to enriching our spirits and our souls with this other kind of touch that contributes to gelassenheit:
”... the touch of minds in thought. When we engage in conversation, for instance, we are touched by others' thoughts and can in turn touch them with our thoughts.
“And not only in conversatioin, but in silence as well: thoughts can be exchanged without a single word being uttered.”
I have hardly scratched the surface of this engaging and, I think, important little books. “Little” because it measures only about four inches by seven inches but is packed with intelligence, compassion and learning.What We Gain as We Grow Older: On Gelassenheit is available at bricks-and-mortar book shops, the usual online book purveyors and the American publisher, Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc., has made five copies available to give away to TGB readers.
As in the past, we will do a random drawing. Here's how it goes:
Leave a message in the comments section below (no emails). That's it. If you have something to say about What We Gain as We Grow Older, that's good – we like lively discussions here - but not required.
The only requirement is that you state your interest in winning one of the books. “Please enter me in the drawing,” works. Or typing, "Me, me, me" will do it, too. I'm not fussy.
The contest will close tomorrow night, 11 February 2016, at midnight U.S. Pacific standard time. The five winners will be chosen in a random, electronic drawing and their names will be announced on this blog on Friday 12 February 2016.