The Notion of Progress and the Reality of Aging

How does aging fit in with the narrative of progress in which we are immersed? One can wonder about what progress really is or means (G. K. Chesterton: “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision”) or marvel at the reversal of the Enlightenment period from the old story of decline from the Golden Age to expectations of ever-better lives, technologies, civilizations (J. B. Bury: “Between 1690 and 1740 the conception of an indefinite progress of enlightenment had been making its way”). Regardless of how we define it or how it arrived, we now live in a world that sees itself as progressing; we participate in a world that expects people to improve themselves; we flail around in a world that offers us visions of innovation and perfectibility.

Humanity did not necessarily start with a progress narrative; ancient stories often depicted a fall from a golden era (think Eden or the Golden Age (which the Greeks said were followed by the inferior Silver, Bronze and Iron ages). In this old story, the trajectory of a human life followed the pattern of the cosmos. Childhood and youth were a kind of Eden; loss of innocence was followed in a few years by many other losses. With the Enlightenment and the advent of a progress narrative, humanity found optimism in a future which included scientific advancement and expanded life spans. Things were only going to get better. Celestial immortality was replaced by the hope of infinite mortality. Yet, people still age. More slowly, perhaps, and certainly for a longer time span than did our ancestors. And yet – we age and wane in a world that does not seem to have a narrative of decline.

What does one do with a body (despite periodic repairs in organs and skin tone) which is on a downward trajectory? And what about the mind that might be wiser, but is slower and more forgetful? What do we do with the discrepancy between the decline of the individual body and the ideology of progress? The “ideal” of the Enlightenment was progress; this collective advancement was hard to reconcile either in fact or metaphor with the reality of the aging of an individual. And no one seems to want to help us (other than by selling us things to make us look or feel younger). We are exhorted to keep up with things, stay busy, see the world, look younger, eat strategically and beat the odds. The day comes, of course, when we can’t keep up, don’t want to be busy, look old, and face undeniable omens of mortality. And often the terminology used is that of failure: “She’s losing her fight against gravity.” “He doesn’t even try any more.” “She wears old lady clothes.” “She’s given up.”

I am no Luddite. Science has certainly given us longer and healthier lives, but it has not given us an allegory, a template, for growing old. Science does not grow old; it renews and adapts itself continually. Technology, science’s step-child, not only moves steadily forward, but is commercially insistent that we all come along for the ride. If we cannot keep up, we are “behind the times.” How can we be behind the times we are living in? And if we are (and see this week’s story, “The Needs of the Living Organism”), is that entirely a bad thing? Might those outside the circus be the only ones who can see objectively the frenetic activity in the three rings under the big top? Might we not appreciate this as a good place to be? (Think of Lear’s plan for his old age at the end of the bard’s play – but more on King Lear next time.)

When I left the commerce of the working world, I was relieved I would not have to learn another computer update, not have to adjust again to whole new ways of getting the job done. My generation – who entered the work world before computers and just slightly after Xerox machines – adapted to a great deal and did it well. But is learning a new technology really a growth experience? Given a choice in old age, might we not want to spend our time learning other things? Or reflecting on what it means to have spent so much of our lives learning and adapting to ever-changing tools – and wondering whether that effort minimized our better understanding of what those tools were used for. We might decide the Enlightenment notion of progress is something we can transcend; indeed, it might be one of the things that old age is for.

The Sacred Book

Books are wonderful. I learned at a very young age that there is nothing better than a good book.   Books were the things, besides the body, that seemed to transcend every transition in life. I married, had children changed husbands, launched kids, moved houses – but there were always the books. A mystified coworker (who could not believe I spent precious vacation time going somewhere to talk about books) once gave me a sweatshirt that said: “So many books, so little time.” Yes, indeed.

I thought you could learn anything from a book. My father may have been the culprit on this. He built his first house  out of a book entitled Your Dream Home: How to Build it for Less than $3,500 – very popular with GI’s who came home after World War II. My father read the book and he built a house. He had some help and the house had its problems, but the book told him what he needed to know, and – more than that – it convinced him it was possible. In later years, he used books to teach himself to sail, play chess, and to build a fireplace with rocks that he picked up on the beach. I have a clear memory of all of us standing around the massive hearth, where misshapen rocks were held together with a little more concrete than you might see in more professional masonry, and holding our breaths as we waited to see whether it would draw smoke. And it did. Again, not perfectly, but well enough for the man who was so proud of it. You could learn anything out of books.

Over the years I used books for a variety of reasons. I wore out my Dr. Spock while raising children and I am on my second red Betty Crocker cookbook.  I learned to knit and crochet with books; I taught myself enough French to pass the second-language translation test for a graduate degree I used books to plan trips, bake bread, grow roses, sew curtains, buy cars, set up a retirement account, research almost anything I was interested in.

Of course, the obvious extrapolation from all of this textual success was that the same vehicles that taught me information and crafts, that delivered me safely where I wanted to go and told me if my child had the chicken pox, could also teach me how to live a happy, peaceful life, could free me from irrational fears (hypochondria, catastrophic thinking) and rational fears (death and global warming), could help me adjust to old age. So, I read great books, self-help books, spiritual memoirs, important works in psychology and philosophy and popular works of psychobabble. I ran through subjects and authors. Still I could not read myself into faith or peace or self-acceptance. But I kept trying. If the original story were true, it was just a matter of reading the right book, wasn’t it? And I had always thought there could not be enough books, but perhaps we should remember what the Preacher says (in Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books of the Bible): “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

So my faith in books had some holes in it. It is clear, while I have learned much on a “technical” level, there is something that books have not been able to give me. I have wandered and thirsted through Borges’ labyrinthine libraries and gathered all of the likely candidates. And still there were no answers to many important questions. (See this week’s story, “By the Book,” for a tale of bibliomancy, the belief that books can indeed answer specific questions.)

I ran across this passage from the ever-pessimistic Schopenhauer not long ago (and it is worth thinking about pessimistic vs. optimistic attitudes toward life and where they land us, but that is for another time):

much reading robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a continuous weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.

This practice accounts for the fact that learning makes most men more stupid and foolish than they are by nature, and prevents their writings from being a success; they remain, as Pope has said. “Forever reading, never to be read.”

“The safest plan is the pick up a book….” Books are no different from other experiences in many ways, but perhaps inferior in being at second hand. And if – like other experiences – we do not take time to process our reading, make it part of us, love, criticize, accept or reject what we read, books are, at last, simply amusements and diversions.   I will always love books, but I no longer believe they will save me. And I particularly cannot believe that the next one will be the jackpot – because there will always be a next one (ask the Preacher).

So, here might be the new story. There is a time in life to lean back and try to bring the reading and experience into synch – to enter into a Lady Slane (All Passion Spent) period of reflection. This may be one of the things old age is for. A moratorium on input and time for processing. I have not read every good book, but perhaps I have realized that I will never get to the end of good books. And if I keep trying to get to the end of them, I might never get to the bottom of them.

Shrove Tuesday

Tuesday (February 13) is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday – called “fat” because it was the last day Christians could eat up all the rich stores in their pantries before Lent, which started the next day. It is also called Shrove Tuesday, because the faithful were encouraged to think about their sins in advance of the penitential Ash Wednesday. Shrove is a form of the verb shrive, meaning: “present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.” Perhaps, in some traditions, that literally meant going to the confessional in preparation for participating in the Ash Wednesday service. In any case, one was to be cleansed from one’s sins either by acting them out and eating them up (Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) or by getting them absolved through repentance and confession (Shrove Tuesday) – or perhaps by doing both (acting out and then getting forgiven).

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the first Monday of Lent is Clean Monday, when both the soul and the household are thoroughly cleaned. Perhaps this is related in some way to the practice of spring cleaning. In any case, the idea is to sweep the decks and enter Lent with a clean conscience and a clean house.

Because it is related to Easter, Shrove Tuesday is a “moveable feast,” dependent on the celestial lunar calendar rather than what is called the “civil” calendar – but which is really the Gregorian calendar (named after a the pope who instituted it, so it is not entirely civil!). Hemingway used the term for the title of his Paris sketches: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”  As we age, we might think about what were the moveable feasts in our lives – memories which can enrich us. Of course, there are also memories that bring regret. For those, perhaps we need the cleansing of Shrove Tuesday or Clean Monday.

In earlier times, old age was seen as a time for repentance and making one’s soul right. Widows and widowers often joined convents and monasteries. In the Prologue to The Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530), aspirants to the monastic life are cautioned that “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.” The Buddhists have a tradition of older people “going forth” into a form of psychological homelessness in preparation for their death. It was a time for renunciation and, perhaps, mental reconciliation.

In our culture, renunciation in old age often takes the form of downsizing. Clearing house is, perhaps, a form of shriving. Tag sales are held, children are encouraged to take Grandma’s china, thrift shops receive our donations by the bagful. The accumulation of a lifetime is evaluated and distributed. And such adjustments also require psychological recalibrations, cleansing of false ideas about who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going.

As we enter Lent, it might be well to think the need for cleanliness of all types. The story I have posted today (“Shrove Tuesday”) takes place in a laundromat, a “Temple of Clean,” where old meet young, and everyone is “shriven of their sweat and dirt and filth until the next week. It is where our transgressions are rinsed away, spun into filaments, and tumbled out into the upper air.”

Groundhog Life

As I am writing this, it is Groundhog Day. In our neighborhood, it is cold but sunny. The big rodent will most assuredly see his shadow, leaving us six more weeks of winter. Hopefully, not a day more. But, I can’t think about Groundhog Day  without recalling the 1993 Bill Murray movie, where the main character lives the same day over and over again. Recurrences. Purposeful recurrences are sometimes called rituals. Groundhog Day itself is a constructed ritual.

Nietzsche talked about the doctrine of eternal recurrence or return, in which we would live the same life over and over again. Nietzsche even frames it as a thought experiment: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (from The Gay Science).Perhaps there is an inference that we might want to live our life in such a way that we would be willing to live it over and over again. Not something easy to consider.

But the rituals of our lives – from the observance of Groundhog Day to the cup of coffee (decaf) after dinner – may be the very fabric of our lives. As we age, rituals may be our salvation.

A number of years ago there was an article in the NY Times about decision-making which discussed how lack of “ritual” or habit could lead to decision-fatigue. Our brains need to ration their energy. The article makes a case for the kind of “semi-rigid” structured life (like mine) which my children regularly make fun of. John Tierney cites research which points out that some people “establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”

Rituals minimize decisions. We know what time we are getting up, what’s for breakfast and lunch, and what time we are eating dinner.   I know what day I am going to clean bathrooms, do laundry, go to the gym (without a friend). Very few decisions are left. Thank the good Lord. Boring (perhaps) at times (especially to others), but I don’t really mind. And such a life is seldom chaotic – unless, of course, the rituals get disrupted. And there’s the rub. More on that another time.

But my point is – here and in my story of Walden Pond attached (“Again and Again and Again”) – rituals can comfort, strengthen, inure us to the inevitable. Our attachment to ritual makes us vulnerable, but perhaps less vulnerable than we would be to chaos.