Old Age and the Obstacle Course

I have been reading a book of essays by Aldous Huxley, Music at NightIt contains several fine essays, including the title piece.  But there is one, “Obstacle Race,” which contemplates the possible benefits of obstacles in life and reflects on how few obstacles there are in modern life.  In addition to running water meaning no more trips to the well and central heating meaning no more chopping wood, Huxley thinks we have also removed the obstacles that religion used to provide.  Huxley posits that these theological hurdles were often insurmountable for mere mortals, but they made life interesting:

 …having to climb over obstacles is in the last resort more pleasurable than trotting along on the flat. . . . Absurdly enough, men like obstacles, cannot be spiritually healthy without them, feel bored and ill when they take to flat racing.

  And, suggests Huxley, if religion is no longer going to do this for us, maybe science must:

It will be the business of science to discover a set of obstacles at least as exciting and sportingly difficult as those which Octave and Armance [from a novel by Stendhal] had to surmount, but less dangerous to sanity and life, and in spite of their absurdity, somehow compatible with an existence rationally organized for happiness and social progress.  It remains to be seen how far, without the aid of a mythology, it will be successful.

Well, I would not say that our science has been very good at this.  We have not developed a “mythology” (can science develop a mythology?),  so people have stepped back haphazardly into old mythologies or just plowed along in furrows of sheer selfishness.  The results have been climate change, overpopulation, and increasing peril for the planet.  We could certainly use the “aid of a mythology.” 

Interestingly, many years after Huxley wrote this essay, he completed Brave New World,  the most well-known of his works.  In that book, the workers play “Obstacle Golf,” a game intended to give the bland life of the proletariat a false sense of overcoming obstacles.  In the same book, a character notes that science has gotten rid of all the “physiological stigmata of old age… along with all the old man’s mental peculiarities.  Characters remain constant throughout a whole lifetime.”  How boring.  And yet, is this not the magic formula that modern medicine is looking for?

But what does this need for obstacles have to say to us “retired” people, especially those of us who are not battling major health obstacles (yet) and have enough money to meet our needs (assuming those needs don’t keep expanding)? Are we just amusing ourselves with forms of Obstacle Golf rather than the satisfaction of overcoming real obstacles?  Some of us set up our own obstacles – through volunteer work, learning a new skill, tackling a project that might just be a little beyond us. But most of the advertising for retirement villas, cruises, and financial plans for the elderly promise the elimination of all stress, the removal of all obstacles.  Sounds wonderful, but Huxley would question what kind of life that would be.

Other people provide the most challenging obstacles, of course.  Remember what Sartre said about them.  But all the data says that social isolation can kill us.  So it might be worth thinking about obstacles in our lives, and perhaps welcoming a few more.  Life will not be so easy, but maybe it will also not be so flat.

Of course, some of us are all too attracted to challenges.  Yeats complained poetically about his “fascination with what is difficult.”  He said it “ dried the sap out of my veins, and rent /Spontaneous joy and natural content /Out of my heart.”  Sometimes we overchallenge ourselves with difficulties, other times with over-scheduling, over-commitment.  The best advice, as always, is probably Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

I have put up a new story this week, “Why My Aunt Josie Has a Limited Vocabulary,” which is, in its way, about a woman who finds a way to minimize obstacles in her life.  Sometimes minimizing obstacles can be a challenge in itself.

Lost Horizon and the Purpose of (Extreme) Old Age


Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life.  A good read if there ever was one.  As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet.  Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later.  The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.

The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors: 

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation.  We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.  And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)

The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal).  As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway  questions the purpose of such a long life:

…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense.  I can’t look so far ahead.  I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy.  I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point.  I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)

And then the old lama tries to answer him:

There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed.  It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years.  We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy.  We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that  all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)

And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:

We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.  Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.  We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.  Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.   (110)

I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me.  What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints.  To live longer, yes.  Out of fear of dying, of course.  But what are we doing with all those additional years?  Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?

And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate?  The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.”  Is that the purpose for extreme old age?  I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.”  Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner.  Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me.  For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth.  And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.

There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life.  It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life.  St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.”  Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning.”  With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no?  And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it.  Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.

 Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old.  I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here.  Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus.