Devotion is much to be admired. I am not necessarily talking about religious devotion, but single-minded dedication in any form tends to sanctify both the object of worship and the devotee. We often trivialize the devotion of other people when it differs from our own, but true devotion – be it to a person, a god, an art, an animal – is often admirable and surely gives many lives their meaning.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (a god in disguise) tells Arjuna, “Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion will also come to Me, Arjuna, but by other paths.” The paths are many, and in older people we sometimes see devotion take forms we may find silly – devotion to a grandchild, a cat, a favorite cause, a collection of coins or favorite recording artist. But there is nothing silly here. In a few cases, devotion to bad causes can have evil results, but true love is almost always life-enhancing.
My favorite story of this kind of devotion is Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (Une Cœur Simple). Félicité was a servant who spent her early life devoted to people – a lover, the children in the house where she was employed for half a century, a nephew – who did not return her love. She became practiced at such love, and when she was given a parrot, she had a captive object for her boundless affection. In her old age, when the parrot dies, she has him stuffed. He is her most prized possession, her object of adoration, the center of her life. Again, from the outside, this looks silly, inane – but as Félicité grows old, it is the parrot that grounds and centers her life. When she dies peacefully, “she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”
There are other tales of old folks and their devotions. We have the cliché of the old woman carrying around pictures of her grandchildren, of the old man telling and retelling tales of his favorite baseball team. There is Silas Marner, the old miser, who finds happiness in his attachment to the child Eppie; there is Hemingway’s old fisherman Santiago and his devotion to bringing the big fish out of the sea. Such devotion is sometimes tragic in the end (as it is for Santiago), but it vitalizes life. For the elderly, it is often what gives long life meaning.
We had a neighbor who was in his nineties when we moved into the neighborhood. During the time he lived next to us, his wife’s health failed and she died. He took wonderful care of her. He also took wonderful care of a mangy old dog, whom he walked daily and found endless pleasure in. When he decided he had to move out of his house, the only criteria for a new home was whether old Lucky could come. I don’t know which of them will live longer, but I do know they have enriched each other’s lives. At a particularly desperate point in my life, a therapist suggest that I get a pet. I thought that, in my current state, a pet to take care of was the last thing I needed. But I adopted a cat, and I felt better.
Simone de Beauvoir, in her book on old age, said that all old people need “projects” that we are devoted to:
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 – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work. In spite of the moralists’ opinion to the contrary, in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in upon ourselves.
In her philosophical and scholarly manner, Beauvoir imagined these “projects” to be special people, creative endeavors, worthy causes, or political activities. I think she is right that we need something to be dedicated to, but I would take a broader view.
Of course, devotion can go wrong. If zealous attachment is motivated by fear or power lust, it can be deeply destructive, and we can all think of many examples – from the Nazi hierarchy to the witch burners. The January 6 insurrection was a prime example in recent times, but we all know cases of misplaced devotion. All the best of human emotions possess a shadow side, and once in the grip of a cult, a tribe, a powerful personality, it is hard to see our way out of the fog. How to know? I think that true devotion does not expect a return on investment, the return is the investment.
I wrote a story (“Shrines”) about three old women who are devoted in their own ways, ways that might seem to have little meaning from the outside. One could ponder whether their various dedications enriched their lives. I tried not to reach any conclusion in my story. I still have not reached a conclusion.