Often these days, there appears on my Facebook feed a picture of old people doing the can-can or surfing or jumping out of airplanes – and the caption is usually something like “Don’t worry about getting old, worry about thinking old.” The first thing I think about when I see an old person behaving foolishly is how much they are going to regret that broken hip. The second thing that annoys me is: What in the world is the problem with thinking old?
I think better in my old age than I did when younger and sprier, and if I wanted to bare my soul, I have a past that would attest to this fact. I might not think faster, but fast thinking and precipitous action were the problems of my youth, so slowing down is an improvement. My body might be breaking down and groaning under the challenge to its endurance, but my body reminds me of my own limitations, of the real limitations of existence, of my mortality. All of this leads to more realistic thinking, more comprehensive thinking, better thinking.
I have written several times about Dante’s parabola of life (for example see here), which posits a model wherein we are born and are on the upswing until we reach the “perfect age,” and then start on the downward slope. Over my desk, I have a framed picture of an early American graphic on the “Stages of Woman’s Life from Infancy to the Brink of the Grave.”
As you can see, life was seen as an arch, as a kind of parabola, with ascension to an apex, and then a relentless decline. Extension of the life span (although life expectancy has actually decreased lately) and joint replacements may have shifted the curve a little, but one way or other the body breaks down.
Recently I read a variation on this in a discussion of Ladislaus Boros by Cynthia Bourgeault in the introduction to The Mystery of Death. The discussion posited that there were two lines to life, the physical parabola that Dante was so taken with and a “second curve”:
While the trajectory of the first (outer) curve leads, after that initial expansiveness of youth, toward greater and greater physical limitation and confinement, the trajectory of the second curve, when given full rein, rises irreversibly toward ever-greater interior freedom, expressed in those qualities of self-knowledge, personal agency, and the capacity to live imaginatively and richly within one’s interiorities. [I quote Bourgeault because Boros’ prose is prohibitively dense.]
Mystery of Death presents the argument that the increasing physical limitations we are under in old age actually contribute to wisdom and bring us face to face with the real aspects of the world in which we find ourselves. This is Boros (speaking always in the masculine voice): “He [the elder] loses his illusions: he learns to face up to disorder, suffering and inevitable frustrations, to accept them, to conform himself to them, and yet, to achieve something of lasting value.”
Not all kinds of knowledge and creativity improve with age. 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. There is a place for both. We tend, however, to privilege young geniuses and resist acknowledging the “slow accretion” of careful reflection over time.
There is the trope of the wise old man or woman, and yet how many of us believe in it? How many of us equate “thinking old” with stagnation, nostalgia, or senility? If we don’t believe that our experience and time for reflection give us something of value, then we might as well go skydiving and try to prove (futilely, I am afraid) that we are still on an upward trajectory in some respect. And if we are wiser, how do we share that wisdom? I have written elsewhere (“Teach Your Children Well”) of the difficulty and heartbreak of trying to help the young avoid our mistakes.
Many of my stories are about old people recognizing things they have learned – or, more often, realizing what they had failed to learn in their earlier years. Most of these realizations are “little” learnings; I am still working on the bigger ones. For an example of the former, you might try “Needs of the Living Organism.”