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.

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