Monday, December 31, 2018

Aging: The Promise of One More New Year

      As I am writing this, on New Year's Eve, at the end of 2018, I am reminded again how each December 31 we symbolically mark the end of the year as a kind of death as we watch that ever-present trope of Father Time, bearded and bent, shuffle off to make way for the Baby New Year.

     The figure of Father Time traces its roots back to the Greek god Chronos and to the Celtic Holly King. Both are described in ancient tales as an old man, usually bearded, wearing long robes and a dour expression, often carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper, the very personification of death) and a timepiece.

     We get it. Time is passing him by.

     The Baby, on the other hand, stands for life, resurrection, a new beginning. He echoes the Greek God Dionysus, the god of fun, wine-making and drinking and ritual madness.

     He looks rarin' to go.

     I'm rarin' to go, too, but I know realistically that my life is closer to the man with the hourglass than the Baby in the top hat. But how do I navigate well this time "somewhere near the end," as Diana Athill calls it, as I count down another year of my life?

     On my bedside table is a book called Aging Thoughtfully by philosopher Marsha Nussbaum and legal scholar Saul Levmore that attempts to answer my question. It is a lively debate between two academics about how to approach the subject of aging. It begins with a firm denial that their book has anything to do with that sullen man with the scythe:

     "This book is about living thoughtfully, and certainly not about dying, gracefully or otherwise. To age is to experience, to gain wisdom, to love and to lose, and to grow more comfortable in one's own skin, however much it might be loosening."

     Yet despite their denials, the subject of death permeates Aging Thoughtfully, from the authors' examination of the choices made by a dying King Lear (a fictional character, of course) to their discussions about how the fear of death affects real-life people's end-of-life choices.

     I ordered Aging Thoughtfully, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press, after hearing that Nussbaum was this year's recipient of the Berggruen Prize. I was curious to read something by a 71-year-old who had just been awarded a million dollars for thinking.

     The prize, launched in 2016, is given out by the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute to encourage research in cross-cultural understanding. The results of the American presidential election in 2016 certainly drove home how desperately such research is needed.

Marsha Nussbaum & Saul Levmore (Book photo by Lloyd Degrane)

     Aging Thoughtfully is a conversation between Nussbaum and Levmore who are colleagues at the University of Chicago. The book's subtitle -- Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles & Regret -- give you an idea of the range of subjects they cover. The conversational format -- Nussbaum and Levmore take turns weighing in on all those subjects -- was inspired by Cicero's De Senectute (On Aging) written in 45 B.C.E.

    De Senectute is a fictional conversation inspired by letters exchanged between the Roman philosopher and his friend Atticus, both of whom were in their sixties at the time. The two men didn't consider themselves old at all ("Romans were a healthy lot," Nussbaum and Levmore point out) so in De Senectute Cicero invents a dialogue between a truly aged man -- in his eighties -- whom he calls Cato and two men in their thirties.

     Cato, the imaginary 80-something, is healthy, politically active and obsessed with gardening. He seeks to dispel the myths that his two young men friends have about aging -- that as we age we lose creativity and that death is a "constant fearful presence," for examples.

     "Each part of life has its own pleasures," Cato tells his young interlocutors. "Each has its own abundant harvest, to be garnered in season. We may grow old in body, but we need never grow old in mind and spirit."

     At the same time Cicero was writing about aging, he also wrote a book about friendship -- De Amicitia -- which Nussbaum discusses in Chapter Three (entitled Aging With Friends). That book, too, was based on Cicero's correspondence with Atticus, but as Nussbaum points out, Cicero's official writings don't tell the whole story of what the two men discussed in those letters. At the time Cicero was experiencing a deep depression. His daughter Tullia had died in childbirth. The unbearable pain of his grief and even thoughts of suicide are present in the letters exchanged with Atticus, but they don't make it into the books.

     "These two books have been justifiably popular over the centuries. Both have some very good ideas and arguments. But still, there is something missing," Nussbaum writes. "Although in form they are dialogues, they are very abstract, and they lack, therefore, a key aspect of both friendship and aging: the nuanced sensitivity to the particular that Cicero often praises under the rubric of humanitas." 

    In other words, when philosophers generalize too much about aging, they risk missing the point.  King Lear is not a commentary on dementia -- "or any other universal, individuality-effacing feature of aging," says Nussbaum, "but about the aging of a very particular type of person, one accustomed to dominating and enjoying control."  We all experience loss as we age, but Cicero's grief over the loss of his daughter was specific to him. While his official treatise on aging offers an upbeat, forward looking way to view aging, his letters reveal a more realistic look at age as the struggling, more human Cicero relies on his friend Atticus to see him through a difficult time.

     In other words, we all age, we all grieve, we all love in our own peculiar way. We'll get a more accurate picture of what we need to do as we age if we see ourselves as individuals aging and not just part of a faceless group of "senior citizens." 

    "Cato says that aging is in many ways superior to what precedes it because of the quality of the talk it contains. But he doesn't make good on that promise; your letters do," Nussbaum writes, addressing Cicero directly. "Aging is bound to contain tragedy. It is not bound to contain comedy, or understanding, or love. What supples both of these is friendship."

     Friendship -- by bringing us that understanding and love -- also can edge us away from a fear of death as we age. 

     For as Marcus Tulles Cicero put it:  "No one is as old as to think he or she cannot live one more year."

    One More Happy New Year to us all!