What is the Place of Longevity?

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place.”– from Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech

Lately, the place of longevity has been in politics.  Joseph Biden has just been elected to the presidency at age 77 (about which I am thrilled for reasons that have nothing to do with his age).  Up to this point, the oldest age at which any President had left office had been 77 (Ronald Reagan).  Over the years the median age of election to our highest office has been 55.

Joe is not the only one.  There will be a regular old folks home in the capitol.  Nancy Pelosi is 80 and Mitch McConnell is 78.  The three of them will probably hold power together over the next couple of years (barring an upset in the Georgia senate races).  What does it mean when old folks are in charge?  I am a great believer in the value of old age, but what exactly should be the place of longevity?

Most workers tend to retire in their 60’s if they can afford it.  The average age of retirement in the United States is 62, with 64% of the working population retiring between 55 and 64.  Retirement cannot be mandated (with some exceptions – the military for example). In 1978, mandatory retirement ages below 70 were made illegal; in 1986 Congress got rid of mandatory retirement ages altogether.

And I know what you’ll say: 70 is the new 60, 80 is the new 65.  Maybe.  We stay alive longer; medicine can fix our hearts, open our blood vessels, and replace our arthritic joints.  And in the old days (before the 19th century), it was deemed inappropriate to quit just because you got old.  In that era, age was not a legitimate excuse for retirement from the English House of Lords; men were not free from conscription until they were 61.  King Lear is a parable on the problems with retiring too early (or at all).  Dante condemned a Pope to Limbo because of what he called “The Great Refusal” – retiring from the papacy because of age.  Plato did not think anyone was even fit to rule until they were at least 50, and he gave no retirement age.

So, I’ve been thinking again about what it means to have the old folks in charge.  Over a decade ago, I was mulling this over as I wrote a novel (The Last Quartet) about a world where a flu (yes, indeed!) killed off everyone except the very old (who had gotten the first round of vaccinations) and the very young (babies who were born with some level of immunity).  I tried to imagine old folks raising children and building a new world from the ground up as the loss of almost all working people meant that technology and infrastructure fell apart.  (You can read a short story I wrote as an abstract for the book here.)  In my imagination, the old folks rose to the occasion; they had no choice.  And the young knew no other world, so they accepted the leadership of their extreme elders.  At least for a while.

But, back to Washington and the leadership there.   I do not have the energy that I used to have, and clearly our current leaders do not either.  More, they did not grow up in the same world as most of their constituents.  They may have wisdom (some of them surely do – others I’m not so sure), but wisdom is exercised through careful consideration and not the hectic pace of daily agendas and crises.  Aging gracefully is, in itself, a kind of wisdom.  I think of Jimmy Carter as a model of this. 

In Galenson’s wonderful book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, the author divides the more capable among us as either conceptual geniuses who do there innovative work early (think physicists) or experimentalists, whose work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience and reflection.  The latter group does their better work in later years.  Where does politics fit into this model?  Or, one might ask, who in politics has any time for reflection and the slow accretion of learning?

In any case, we are about to witness the oldest leadership this country has ever seen at the same time that we are living in an age when change has never been faster.  You know by now that I think the old have much to offer to those around us, that old age can be a wonderful time of life.  But there are limits.  In the daily reminders or reflections of Buddhism, there is this: It is the nature of the body to decay and grow old.   We can deny it; we can push ourselves.  We can do well within the constraints of our age.  But it is a constraint – both to ourselves and our ability to relate to those around us.  And then there is the question of why we are seeing such longevity in our leaders; it could be they feel they have much to offer, but it could also be that power is sticky and difficult to shake off.  Or to want to shake off.  But elderly they are, and we will see.  I wrote my novel as a thought experiment; we are witnessing a real experiment.

In The Last Quartet, I was also thinking about the ability of the old to pass on wisdom, rather than knowledge.  You can read the prelude to that book here, but you need to come to your own conclusions.

Turning Things Upside Down in Old Age

Young people look forward – forward to the day when they can carry a cell phone, drive, leave home, marry, have children. There is a long and hopeful future ahead of them. On the other hand (according to Victor Hugo), elders live in “a cottage with a balcony on the edge of the abyss.”

Old peoples’ future is not nearly so long as their past, so they tend to look backwards – a reversal that happens sometime in our late sixties (in my opinion). Events, creeping mortality, and the mirror all jostle our perspective until it… flips. From that point, it appears that we are looking at the world from a different angle than other, younger people. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s poem:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

Old people may be forever standing on their heads. This is not such a bad thing. G.K. Chesterton talks about the value of seeing the world upside down (literally):

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging…. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its [the town of Assisi’s] walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact.

Needless to say, the turning of the world upside down more or less voids the idea of progress. I have talked about progress elsewhere, but it is worth noting again that after the midpoint of life (the peak of Dante’s parabola), the human body is not progressing; the modern aging person lives with the myth of progress while living… the opposite.
But there is hope. Dante describes an upside down world in his Inferno – one goes down only to come out on the other side:

You were there as long as I climbed downward.
When I turned myself round you passed the point
To which all weight on every side pulls down.

And now you come under the hemisphere
Opposite that which domes the vast dry land:
There, beneath its pinnacle of sky… (Canto XXXIV)

Dante and Virgil, of course, emerge in Purgatory, which is not yet heaven (but is far nicer than hell). Remember when you were very young and thought you could dig a hole to China? If you could have done so, you would have tunneled down to the center of the earth and then started going… up. There are also the mythological upside-down trees of the Bhagavad Gita and Norse sagas.

This ability to look back is a blessing of old age. In Mrs. Dalloway, we find this passage:

The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

And in All Passion Spent, Lady Slane calls “looking back on the girl she had once been” as the “last, supreme luxury…. She could lie back against death and examine life.” Old age has its benefits.

And where do we old people come out in our upside-down world? Hopefully, with a new perspective. I love to hike and I have often noted that when going the opposite way I usually travel on a loop, it almost seems like a different path! In retrospect, we may see events in our lives from the standpoint of how they came out rather than what the intention was. We are more likely to forgive mistakes (our own and others – for who could bear the past without forgiveness?) and learn the lessons we missed in our initial shame and regret. From this new standpoint, we also realize that what we thought was good fortune was often disaster in disguise. All this makes us less sure that we know all the answers, but perhaps more sure about what the important questions are. Maybe we are on Hugo’s porch hanging over the abyss, but – nevertheless – we are enjoying the long view down.

And it is just not our personal story; we have lived long enough to see changes in our world. Our generation has seen technology emerge around us and then submerge us all. We have seen what is commonly called progress, but, in retrospect, we are not entirely sure how progress should be defined.

This week’s story, “Two New Apps,” is about technology and love and truth. Enjoy.


Dante’s Parabola


In this pleasing contrite wood-life which god allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.

– Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with a new baby, a lovely new baby. This special infant evoked lucid memories: adults making fools of themselves, the smells of spit-up and sweet baby skin, the rule of chaos in everything including time, and the utter vulnerability in which our species is born. But this time I noticed something else too. The little baby boy was staring very intently at one thing after another. Trying to make sense of the world.

Wordsworth claims that babies come into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and that former babies forget as the shabby realities of the world override the wonders of heaven. Be that as it may, surely babies are trying to make sense of what must seem like a confusing world. And we big folks work to convince them it’s a noble effort and that there is any sense to it all. We teach them labels for things (“Mama”) and, when they respond, we think they’ve really learned something. Maybe. In any case, babies often look intent and perplexed. This one certainly did.

In some cases it seemed the baby had figured things out – or been born knowing them. Our grandson certainly was able to communicate hunger or discomfort of any kind. And we watched him testing how much control he had over his own body – although whether he differentiated his body from his mother’s was unclear. Mostly our baby had a curious and puzzled look on his little face – and that got me thinking again about Dante’s parabola of human life.

If life is a parabola (related to the Greek word parabolē, which also gave us parable), it might be an interesting exercise to ponder the mathematical definition of a parabola, which is: “a curve where any point is an equal distance from a fixed point (interestingly call the focus) and a fixed line (called the directrix).” You can see a good diagram of this here.

In such a model, our lives would travel through time along what we would normally call the x-axis, which in this case is called the directrix – from birth to the left through death to the right. And we might note here that directrix is the archaic feminine form of the director. The directrix is the feminine axis of time. The three Fates were also women: Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, the allotter, and Atropos, the unturnable.

So, if time (the directrix) is the horizontal axis, what is the vertical axis?   If Dante is right, it is the measure of perfection. And he says that it crests in the thirty-fourth year. Maybe true, at least in Dante’s day. Or might it be that with better sanitation and medical help, the peak might have migrated a little to the right? Does it matter? The point is that life’s trajectory goes up – and then goes down. But whatever we call it – growth, development, maturity – it goes through the same levels (think y-axis) going down as it went through going up.

Here’s another way to look at it: the distance from the focus is always changing, but there is always one point going up and one coming down where the distance is the same. A correspondence with an identical point on the y-axis. Birth with death, for instance. And certainly poets have been known to compare the process, the labor of being born with the labor of dying. Could there be other correspondences – menopause and adolescence, for example? Marriage with widowhood or divorce? Steady debilitation in old age with the steady development of children? Can we make comparisons? Can we take lessons from the first time we crossed these vertical markers and use them when we are on the same level on our way down? And what is that still point in the middle, the focus, from which all is measured?

One might think of the Buddha’s enlightenment. After trying to gain nirvana (or at least lasting peace and happiness) through severe ascetic practice – starving himself until he would touch his spine by putting his hand on his stomach – he suddenly remembered a moment from his childhood. As a young child, Siddhartha went to a ploughing festival with his father and was left to sit in “the cool shade of a rose-apple tree” – alone and safe and soon in a kind of self-induced rapture. It was not a rapture born of deprivation; it was a function of deep contentment. And in his adulthood he remembered and re-learned this lesson from his youth. He went back to learn something which taught him how to go forward. The rose-apple tree turned into the bodhi tree. An even better example might be Proust and the memory of the taste of a cookie he dipped in tea when a child. This memory at age fifty-one triggered the Remembrance of Things Past, a review of his life and a masterpiece. A taste and a memory. Parallel moments. Baudelaire said genius was “nothing more than childhood recovered at will.”   Think about that.

And think about the newest baby in our family trying to make sense of the world and more than a little perplexed by it all. And about the oldest member of our family who is also perplexed and getting more so every day. At the same horizontal point on the parabola perhaps, but headed in different directions.

I have attached a story, “Like Heaven,” about a woman at two points on her own parabola. I wrote this tale long ago when I was first thinking about the parabola parable. I am currently working on a novel where I pair diary entries over the course of a lifetime to explore whether the same issues come up as we rise along the arc of life and as we venture down the other side. It isn’t scientific and I’m not even sure the metaphor even holds, but, as I said, it is worth thinking about.

A Diminished Thing?

At the end of Frost’s poem, the oven bird asks the question: “What to make of a diminished thing?” The query follows the comparison of dusty late summer to the moist blossoms of spring. As a late autumn bird myself, I ask: Is old age a “diminished thing”? And, if it is, what do we “make of” it?

There are many metaphors for the trajectory of life: paths, ladders, steps, bridges. In his Convivio, Dante pictures the course of life as a parabola. We go up and we come down. The “high point” of the parabola is around age thirty-five, a date Dante comes to based on Christ’s death in this thirty-fourth year. “It was not fitting that his divinity should be present in something that was in decline.” What, exactly, is “in decline” in the latter part of life? What is “diminishing”? I can give you a long list: teeth, endurance, bone density, strength – and you may add your own infirmities. But, is there something waxing that compensates for that which is waning?

A vigorous old age should be celebrated and enjoyed (may you be so fortunate!). But, however expanded the life span, there will come a time when vigor will diminish, and we must have a story with which to comprehend this change in terms other than those of utter failure. Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” and Burns’ “John Anderson, My Jo” both look back at younger days, but seem to be reconciled to the facts of age. But, in addition to being reconciled, might we not use the more contemplative opportunities of age to actively integrate all we have learned about life, all we have experienced?

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. My favorite novel of old age, Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, presents a woman intent on spending her old age in contemplation, life’s “last, supreme luxury.” There are compensations in age, but we cannot define them by the values of our culture and our own younger days – or we may be fighting a losing battle. “You are only as old as you feel” becomes an exhortation to feel younger, not to experience old age. And the loss of that experience would be diminishment indeed.

And it might be that acceptance is necessary for true appreciation of what age has to offer. Beethoven – one of those masters whose late work is his best – entitled the final movement of his Opus 135, “The Difficult Decision.” The ending of this string quartet is thought to be one of the last pieces of music Beethoven ever wrote. Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?” He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.” The music resolves itself; Beethoven himself seems to find resolve. There may be some energy in fighting the inevitable, but it is a fight we are destined to lose. And perhaps that energy could be put to better use.

The Buddha recommended that people ponder five reflections every day – on the nature and fragility of the body, on the body’s unavoidable aging and decay, on mortality, on the inevitability of separation from all we hold dear, and on karma – the fact that our happiness depends on our actions. While it all sounds harsh, the Buddha assures us that our equanimity depends on acceptance of the truth.

I have posted two stories (“The Birthday Paradox” and “A Perfect Ending”) about the diminishments and magnifications of age. As I have said, aging is one of the divergent problems of life. Aging has no formulaic solution, but this does not mean that attention should not be paid.