Narratives of Old Age

Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes a scripture? When we can no longer recognise anything outside our own reality? – from Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects

Jeannette Winterson correctly points out that it is necessary to “have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day.” We all have narratives that we tell ourselves, for which we provide mental commentary as we move through our days. But what happens when our stories veer from reality? What happens when they become “scripture” for our consciousness, leaving no room for change or adaptation? And what happens when we get old?

What kind of story do we tell ourselves about getting old – if we tell ourselves that story at all? We tell ourselves stories about other people getting old, but we think we are all somehow… exceptions. My mother thinks she is the only person who is not “old” in her memory care facility. “This place is full of old people” she sneers with disdain as she shuffles past her peers down the long corridors. People put off going into retirement villages, elderly housing, assisted living, because those people are so old. And we say it with the same sneer that my demented mother uses. No young people ever complain about going away to college because the people are so young. (Although would you want to move into a dorm again with a gaggle of eighteen-year-olds?)

It is of great note that people of a certain age always claim to feel like they are younger than they are. A favorite conversation topic is divulging with our peers what age we feel like inside – 20? 15? 35? Surely not our real age – not 67 or 75 or 82. We think there is something wrong with our skin, our bones, our hearing because it is not what it used to be and because it does not match our mental image of ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if there is an acceptable story about getting old.

Jeannette Winterson says that we understand each other through “an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” In our culture, the stories of old age we absorb from others are mostly stories of denial or hostility. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But here we sit with our old bodies and our minds that sometimes can’t remember the name of that woman across the street.

Virginia Woolf (who never got very old herself) demands an acknowledgment of the “great wars which the body wages with the mind.”  Woolf concedes that such honesty will not be easy: “To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth.” Woolf also acknowledges that age itself changes our perception of the entire world: “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it.” Is age itself distorting our ability to tell ourselves a real story, a meaningful story?

What would a true and helpful story of old age be? Would a more reasonable narrative of the body’s weaknesses save us from the wasted energy of railing against every demonstration of those very debilities? (I am currently hobbling around in an orthopedic boot protecting a broken foot. It is temporary, but trying my patience and my story about being fit and active – but more on this next time.) If we could get past disdain, would we find some value in old age – a refuge, perhaps, from the competitions and expectations of our youth? Again, I ask all of us (old or young), what is our narrative of old age? And where did it come from? Other people? From our younger selves? Are we brave enough to tell a new story?

And while we are at it, we might also examine the story of the past. Old age is a time (and often has time) for reflection. Does our past match the story we were living at the time? There are still lessons to be learned.

This week’s story is “Playing by Ear,” about the stories we absorb through our auditory functions. Think about it.

Aging Deliberately

I have always been challenged by Thoreau’s ambition to live life intentionally, with purpose and awareness: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To live life deliberately. It seems like such an obvious and worthwhile goal.

I first read Walden in college. By then, it was too late to live my childhood deliberately – and is that even possible? For most of us, choices as to how we lived were severely limited until we were emancipated from our families. Our diets, our activities, our free time were all greatly prescribed. And the nuclear family meant that we often were not even aware that other choices existed. Do you remember how shocked you were when you ate a meal or spent the night at a friend’s house and realized that people did things differently? At six years old, I visited a house where the children were allowed to operate the television by themselves! Who knew?

During adolescence and young adulthood, hormones and the drive for emancipation drove me, drove most of us. And then, quickly enough, I was driven by my career and children. And too busy to think about much else. How else does one get through those years but by ploughing ahead with blinders on? When I visit my children now and watch them cope with young children and jobs and all the juggling of such a life, I still couldn’t tell you how it’s done – except that, under the circumstances, one has to suspend doubt that one can do it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I really had time to pause and think about the shape of my life. There wasn’t much that I could do about the past (except make sure I was telling myself a truthful story – but more on that another time), but the future stood out as a time of … my own. Soon I would not have to work anymore, would not have to live in a given place or a prescribed way, would not have direct responsibility for anyone except my partner and myself. But didn’t Janice Joplin warn us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Freedom itself can lead to futility, despair.

Jeannette Winterson says that the “question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.” It is perhaps the only question. For so much of our lives things seem out of our control, and in our latter years we are, of course, subject to the decay and disease of our bodies. And yet. Surely facing deterioration and death is among the things we can do deliberately, unless we are robbed of this ability by dementia (which is just one of the things that is heartbreaking about that condition).

Here is Montaigne in his essay “Experience”:

We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing today.” What? Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all.” … Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.

So as we retire, we might ask ourselves Montaigne’s implied question, “Have you known how to take repose?” and realize its importance. In his repose, Montaigne looked inward and wrote his essays.

Of course, not all courses are open to us. How we (or the vagaries of life) have prepared our bodies and minds for this last part of life is consequential. Lord Bolingbroke who was forced into retirement in 1735 at age 57, wrote a treatise on study and retirement.  He reminds us such study “would have been agreeable and easy if he had accustomed himself to it early, will be unpleasant and impracticable late: such men lose their intellectual powers for want of exerting them, and, having trifled away youth, are reduced to the necessity of trifling away age. It fares with the mind just as it does with the body.” Cicero expresses similar concerns about dayspring mishandled in his essay on old age. But within the limits of our bodies and minds and preparation, choices still must be made. Old age is different from youth; to ignore the opportunities and challenges it presents will lead us to senescence mishandled.

Carl Jung always insisted that the stages of life had different purposes. “We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” You can read Jung’s “Stages of Life” for his advice on how to spend your old age, but, hey, we’ve lived a long time. Maybe we can figure it out for ourselves. And then do it. Deliberately.

This week’s story, “Essentials,” is not about old age, but it is about the challenge we face at every stage of life – how to make life meaningful. How to live – within the parameters with which we are faced – with intensity and deliberation and good intent.