At the end of Frost’s poem, the oven bird asks the question: “What to make of a diminished thing?” The query follows the comparison of dusty late summer to the moist blossoms of spring. As a late autumn bird myself, I ask: Is old age a “diminished thing”? And, if it is, what do we “make of” it?
There are many metaphors for the trajectory of life: paths, ladders, steps, bridges. In his Convivio, Dante pictures the course of life as a parabola. We go up and we come down. The “high point” of the parabola is around age thirty-five, a date Dante comes to based on Christ’s death in this thirty-fourth year. “It was not fitting that his divinity should be present in something that was in decline.” What, exactly, is “in decline” in the latter part of life? What is “diminishing”? I can give you a long list: teeth, endurance, bone density, strength – and you may add your own infirmities. But, is there something waxing that compensates for that which is waning?
A vigorous old age should be celebrated and enjoyed (may you be so fortunate!). But, however expanded the life span, there will come a time when vigor will diminish, and we must have a story with which to comprehend this change in terms other than those of utter failure. Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” and Burns’ “John Anderson, My Jo” both look back at younger days, but seem to be reconciled to the facts of age. But, in addition to being reconciled, might we not use the more contemplative opportunities of age to actively integrate all we have learned about life, all we have experienced?
David Galenson’s book on age and art, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, divides artists into two groups: conceptual geniuses who do innovative work early, and experimentalists, whose best work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience, and reflection – all of which occur in the later years. My favorite novel of old age, Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, presents a woman intent on spending her old age in contemplation, life’s “last, supreme luxury.” There are compensations in age, but we cannot define them by the values of our culture and our own younger days – or we may be fighting a losing battle. “You are only as old as you feel” becomes an exhortation to feel younger, not to experience old age. And the loss of that experience would be diminishment indeed.
And it might be that acceptance is necessary for true appreciation of what age has to offer. Beethoven – one of those masters whose late work is his best – entitled the final movement of his Opus 135, “The Difficult Decision.” The ending of this string quartet is thought to be one of the last pieces of music Beethoven ever wrote. Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?” He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.” The music resolves itself; Beethoven himself seems to find resolve. There may be some energy in fighting the inevitable, but it is a fight we are destined to lose. And perhaps that energy could be put to better use.
The Buddha recommended that people ponder five reflections every day – on the nature and fragility of the body, on the body’s unavoidable aging and decay, on mortality, on the inevitability of separation from all we hold dear, and on karma – the fact that our happiness depends on our actions. While it all sounds harsh, the Buddha assures us that our equanimity depends on acceptance of the truth.
I have posted two stories (“The Birthday Paradox” and “A Perfect Ending”) about the diminishments and magnifications of age. As I have said, aging is one of the divergent problems of life. Aging has no formulaic solution, but this does not mean that attention should not be paid.