The Purpose of Old Age

I recently encountered an anthropological theory to explain why women evolved to live beyond their child-bearing years. It is called the “grandmother hypothesis” and posits that having post-menopausal women looking after the kids and tending the home fire worked to ensure the survival of the species. (I could find no such hypothesis about male longevity – but that is another subject.) This hypothesis made me think, as I often have, about what the purpose of old age might be. Or (and better), what purpose can we give it?

Literature gives us an array of meanings to choose from. The “grandmother hypothesis” reminds me of Willa Cather’s wonderful story “Old Mrs. Harris.” Mrs. Harris takes care of her daughter’s family, sleeps in a room off the kitchen, and comes from a culture where “every young married woman in good circumstances had an older woman in the house, a mother or mother-in-law or an old aunt, who managed the household economies and directed the help.” Mrs. Harris has no “help,” so she does it all herself, and her neighbors feel sorry for her, until they realize at the end that Mrs. Harris is doing exactly what she wants to do. While it is hard on the old bones, “the moment she heard the children running down the uncarpeted back stairs, she forgot to be low. Indeed, she ceased to be an individual, an old woman with aching feet; she became part of a group, became a relationship.” There is a special kinship between her and the young ones she tends so solicitously. She was “perfectly happy.

On the other hand, the elderly Lady Slane (in Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent) pushes her family away so that she will have time to reflect on the past and meditate on her life. Lady Slane characterizes such time as “life’s last supreme luxury.” Similarly there is an old custom in Buddhist societies of the old “going forth” into the forest or ashram to spend the last part of their lives in contemplation.

The very elderly speaker in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead concludes that old age is for forgiveness – and love: “ It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.” So, we live long enough to forgive others. I can tell you from experience that if you outlive the “others,” forgiveness is easier. And then there is Saint Benedict who says in the Prologue to his Rule that “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.” So we live long to forgive and be forgiven.

In fact, old age in the Bible is often seen as a reward for faith and good living. Abraham and other Biblical patriarchs died at “a good old age” for a job well done. “If thou wilt walk in my ways to keep my statutes, and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days” (1 Kings 3:14), says God to Solomon. In this way, the purpose of old age is to reap one’s reward for work well done, and many retired people indeed look at their “golden years” this way. This attitude has been very lucrative for the cruise industry (until Covid).

Again and again, the Bible exhorts the old to find purpose in sharing their wisdom: “The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 20:29). Similarly, in his Republic, Plato (and he was surely talking about the grandfathers rather than the grandmothers) thought that those over fifty should turn to philosophy, but also take a turn at being an officer of the state, “regarding the task as not a fine thing but a necessity.” As I have noted elsewhere, we have many elderly leaders these days – but I am not always sure they come at it from the attitude Plato would have them adopt.

Emerson posited that the best use of leisure at the end of our lives would be to “run to the college or the scientific school which offered the best lectures.” Bolingbroke wrote an essay in the 18th century about the role of study in retirement, stating that the old mind “may continue still to improve and itself” as compensation for the decline of the body . But Seneca and Montaigne rather disdained the view of an old man as a pupil. Montaigne does, however, draw a distinction between studying and being instructed. “While it is creditable for every age to study, so it is not creditable for every age to be instructed. An old man learning his ABC is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.”

In her book The Coming of Age (recommended if not always agreed with), Simone de Beauvoir says that the only way to make old age meaningful is to have projects:

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.

Yes. But. She also says (and all of this is in her conclusion to the book) that it is fairly inevitable that “illusions” will vanish and “one’s zeal for life pass away.” And we must consider these projects carefully; Carl Becker (Denial of Death) posits that many people engage in “immortality projects,” sometimes doing tremendous damage while trying to make sure that their name never dies.

Carl Jung, who uses the metaphor of times of day in his essay on “The Stages of Life,” says that each stage has its own program and the purpose of the evening of old age is to be reflective, “preoccupied with himself.” He agrees with the anthropologist that there must be a meaning to our longevity. “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” And he is firm that we should not try to be young. It is as ridiculous for us to take on the goals of youth as it would be for youth to spend its time reflecting on its death.

Finding a purpose in old age is clearly an individual quest – or it should be. If we take our motivations from internet ads, glossy content, or paperback advice, there will be nothing individual about it. I have no answers for you, but leave you with the good advice of Seneca:

It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by the book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say?… All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit.

If you want to think about the grandmother hypothesis some more, you might try my story “Common Enemy.” The title comes from Sam Levenson: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.” Of course, no one who is not old enough to be a grandparent will have any idea who Sam Levenson was or why this is funny.

The Coronavirus and Its Gifts

T. S. Eliot famously enumerated the three gifts of old age. I believe old age does have gifts, real gifts. And perhaps so does this horrific period we are going through – at least for those of us fortunate enough to be fearful but yet untouched, those of us lucky enough to have homes to shelter in and food in the cupboard. Without minimizing the pain and fear of this plague, it might be worth thinking about what unintentional gifts it might be strewing in its wake.

For one, there is the gift of time. I must admit that I miss the ritual of my weekly meetings and errands. I miss regular exercise at the gym, and the mental and physical energy I garner from the women I do yoga with. I miss concerts and movies and travel. All of a sudden days yawn wide, and it is up to me to see that as suffering or opportunity.

Time allows for depth. Our generation has seen our opportunities to read, watch, experience, travel and meet people multiply. And yet, there is less and less time to reflect on what we read, what we see, what we really think. Auden was worried about this over fifty years ago:

Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paper-backs, first-rate colour reproductions and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused – and we do misuse it – can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb; and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday’s newspaper. (“Words and the Word” in Secondary Worlds)

I have often talked about the joys of “re-reading” (for another view on this see Vivien Gornick’s Unfinished Business – Notes of a Chronic Re-reader or my story “Nothing New”), and now we have the time. The books we love are probably in the house or loaded on our Kindle, and their very familiarity may provide both comfort and surprise at how  different they seem as both we and the world are in a different place.

A second gift of Covid-19 might be an increased cognizance, a more visceral recognition, of our own mortality. The virus reminds us that we are “knocking on heaven’s door.” Most of us have never lived such times; we have been singularly fortunate. For other generations in other places, it was a situation they were intimate with. I am reminded of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” Freud is speaking about World War I, but he could easily have been talking about the coronavirus:

We were [before the war], of course, prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes a debt to nature and must pay the reckoning – in short that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, we were accustomed to think it were otherwise…. It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death. Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time, often ten thousand in a single day.

The world has not gotten to 10,000 deaths a day yet, but over 60,000 people (an undercount assuredly) are being diagnosed every day. Mortality will rise.

Cultures through the ages have understood that people know that they are mortal and yet act otherwise; Sartre said that our own death was “unrealizable.” Yet, in the denial of truth there is no freedom. In the Katha Upanishad, the young Nachiketa goes to Yama, the God of death, and says “O king of death… I can have no teacher greater than you.” In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Gilgamesh, the hero is devastated by the death of his friend Enkidu and goes off on a search for immortality. And when he finds the answer (a magic plant), a snake steals it from him (sound familiar?) and he has to face… his own mortality and the mundane concerns back in his kingdom of Urdu.

The third lesson would entail the virus  waking us up (does it have your attention yet?) and making us realize that we’re part of nature – for better or worse – and we had better start acting like it. Like death, this is something we know cognitively but not viscerally. We are also part of each other and need to do what we can to help. Jung said that “Everything could be left undisturbed did not the new way demand to be discovered, and did it not visit humanity with all the plagues of Egypt until it finally is discovered.” (Thanks to Paul Levy at the Buddhist Global Relief web site for this citation.) Let’s hope it does not take “all the plagues of Egypt” to make us find a “new way,” and let’s pray this particular plague winds down sooner than expected. But let’s also hope that this liminal experience teaches us something about our vulnerability, about our place in the universe. That it humbles us.

Here is a story about a plague/flu that I wrote about a dozen years ago. It is not the coronavirus, though it does come from China. My fictional plague is not often fatal for the individual, but it may be for the species. Just a thought experiment. But doesn’t life feel rather like a thought experiment these days? Be safe and use your time well.