Becoming and De-becoming

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been hobbled with a broken foot. I was carrying on quite well (perhaps too well) until I went to what I thought would be my last appointment with the orthopedist – looking forward to leaving the office with my cumbersome boot under my arm and destined for the trash bin. Instead, I was told that my foot hadn’t healed; we would have to give it at least another month and see what was happening. I did not take it well.

It is true that I have osteoporosis. I take calcium, eat a ton of yogurt, and exercise regularly, but my genes and my age have caught up with me. My body is breaking down and taking longer to repair itself. Eventually, of course, it will be beyond repair (some might say that it has already gotten to that point). In the course of my daily meditation, I repeat the five recollections (Upajjhatthana Sutta), the second of which is “I have a body which is subject to aging and decay; I am not beyond aging and decay.” I have been repeating these words for years, but somehow I don’t seem to want to believe them. None of us does. And yet, none of us is beyond aging and decay.

I have referenced Hermann Hesse’s Hymn to Old Age before, and I recommend it heartily. There was a critical article about Hesse in a recent New Yorker – even the title was negative: “Herman Hesse’s Arrested Development.” Hesse did try to catch the soul of the young, and this review emphasizes such works as Demian and Siddhartha, but neglects The Glass Bead Game – or, more accurately, points to it only in that it includes young men living celibate lives in perpetual school. Unfair, I think. Hesse wrote prose and poetry into his old age; The Glass Bead Game (particularly cited when Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize) was published when he was in his sixties and has much to say about being old and being young. The compendium of his words in and about old age which I reference above is a treasure.

In any case, Hesse has this to say about the process of “de-becoming” – a term I have come to appreciate:

For the task, desire and duty of youth is to become, and the task of the old man is to surrender himself or, as German mystics used to call it, ‘to de-become.’ One must first be a full person, a real personality, and one must have undergone the sufferings of this individualization before one can make the sacrifice of his personality.

And this, again, reminds me of Buddhism, where “becoming” is not always a good thing, while Nibbana or “extinction” of desire is indeed to be wished for. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a great Buddhist scholar and translator puts it like this:

In the end he must choose between the way that leads back into the world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult and demanding, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance confirming that it can be done, that it lies within man’s power to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.

Like it or not, as we age we are “de-becoming” what we used to be – body and mind. It is a sacrifice that we make whether we do so willingly or not. But perhaps the measure of a Hesse’s “full person” is that one can surrender willingly, even joyfully. I have not gotten there yet, but the forces of nature are working on me.

This week’s piece of fiction (“May 12, 2036”) is an exercise based on Jorge Borges’ short story “August 25, 1983,” wherein the great Argentinian writer imagines meeting himself in the future on his own deathbed. (He died in 1986, so was off by three years.) It is an intriguing story and a good model. Read my story if you like, but please do read the Borges. And try the exercise yourself.

Yes and Hesse and Old Age


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Spinoza and the value of cheerfulness. I took some criticism for promoting baseless optimism; surely this is not what I (or Spinoza) intended. Let me try again.

Cheerfulness is a way of saying yes to what life presents. Think of Molly Bloom saying yes to life and all it entails. Remember Paul telling the Corinthians that Jesus was never about yes or no, but always about yes. Consider Nietzsche sharing his “highest insight”:

This final, most joyful, effusive, high-spirited yes to life is not only the highest insight; it is also the most profound, the most rigorously confirmed and supported by truth and study. Nothing in existence should be excluded, nothing is dispensable …. To understand this requires courage….

Yes! An affirmation of life, the start to approaching life with… cheerfulness. As one definition has it: an ungrudging attitude toward life.
One of the best (and most neglected) writings on old age is a collection (Hymn to Old Age) that Hermann Hesse pulled together from his own letters and other writings. At age seventy-five, Hesse talks about getting to yes in regard to life – and specifically in regard to old age:

An old man who only hates his white hair and his proximity to death is as unworthy a representative of this phase of life as a young, strong man who hates his job and his daily work and tries to get out of them. In brief, if an old man is to achieve his goal and do justice to his task, he must be in accord with age and everything that age brings with it – he must say yes to all of it. Without this yes, without acceptance of what nature demands of us, we lose the value and sense of all our days – whether we are old or young – and we betray life.

Hesse is thought of as a great influence on the young. We all read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf when we were young. If we were lucky we read Glass Bead Game when we were a little older. But Hesse lived to be eighty-five and he had what seems to be an admirable old age. And he “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age”:

For me the dearest of all these gifts is the treasure of images which after a long life we carry in our memory, and to which with the decline of our active powers we turn with a different attitude from ever before…. Looking, observing and contemplating increasingly becomes a habit, an exercise, and imperceptibly the mood and approach of the watcher permeates all our actions… today, gently leafing through the great picture book of our own life, we are amazed at how good and beautiful it can be to have escaped the hunt and the headlong rush and to have landed safely in the vita contemplativa. Here, in this garden of old men, many flowers blossom which earlier we would never have thought of cultivating. There blooms the flower of patience, a noble plant, and we become calmer, more tolerant, and the less we insist on actively intervening, the greater becomes our ability to watch and listen to the life of nature and the lives of our fellow humans, and to let it all pass us by without criticism but with renewed amazement at the vast diversity, sometimes taking part or silently regretting, and sometimes laughing with shining joy and humour.

Hesse “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age.” One might compare Eliot’s “gifts reserved for old age” from “Little Gidding.” Eliot’s gifts are mostly in the negative, he’s not nearly as… cheerful as Hesse. Hesse says yes to it all. Hesse is realistic, though; his paean to old age includes the aches and pains and disappointments of himself and his fellow travelers. But in the end: “Age is not worse than youth; Lao Tse is not worse than Buddha. Blue is not worse than red. Age is only pathetic when it wants to play at being young.”

Interestingly, Hesse wrote an early novel (while in his thirties) about the old called In the Old Sun. It is good, but does not have the ring of truth we find in the selections from A Hymn to Old Age. In the latter, Hesse has been to the mountaintop and back down to the valley – and he is still cheerful.

This week I have posted the story “The More Loving One,” with a nod to Auden.  It is about a dying father’s gift to his daughter, a gift that has to do with saying “yes.”