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.

What Old Folks Know About Miracles and Limits – “Speak Yet Again”

Do old folks have any wisdom to share? In King Lear, the Fool scolds Lear: “Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.” (I, v,28) Are we wise? It occurs to me lately that we are wise about two especially important things.

I have been reading Wendell Berry’s book, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Berry actually starts the book with this line that Edgar speaks to his father (Gloucester) after the blind old man, intent on suicide, has been tricked into thinking he has jumped off a cliff and survived: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” (IV, vi,55) Thy life’s a miracle. This is the first thing old folks know. Review your life and think about how it all could have gone differently – and more wrongly. Think about near-death experiences and medical procedures that saved or prolonged your life. Think about how lucky you were to have parents or caregivers who nurtured you until you could stand on your own two feet. Our old lives are miracles.

The other way that we know the miraculousness of life is through all that science has learned about the big bang, evolution, DNA, chance. Do you know that if the rate of expansion of the universe was different by even an iota, life on earth would not be possible? The multitude of variations and mutations that life had to go through to make us human? The number of sperm that were competing to be the person you became? Miraculous. Old people know this. “Thy life’s a miracle.” Truly, it is. In his old age, Henry Miller said: “The worst is not death, but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.

The subtitle of Wendell Berry’s book is “An Essay against Modern Superstition.” For Berry, the “modern superstition” is that science can eventually know everything and everything can be dissected into… data and facts, I guess. It is a resistance to limits and promotes a world view that puts all faith in progress and assumes we can, eventually, understand and control almost everything. Berry says “the mystery surrounding our life is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.” This is the other thing we know.  Old people know there are limits to knowledge. We have learned this the hard way by making mistakes when we thought we had all the answers. And if we didn’t know this before, Covid-19 might have taught us a thing or two.

Old people know that not everything that can be defined as a “problem” with a definitive solution. I think of Schumacher’s differentiation between convergent and divergent problems in his Guide for the Perplexed. How to build a diesel engine is a convergent problem; scientists can work on it and come up with an answer. How to use such an engine for the benefit of society (i.e. transportation of goods vs. preservation of the environment?) is a divergent problem. Adolescents often think all problems are convergent and often think they know the solutions. Most old people know that the important questions are divergent and can (and should) be grappled with, but cannot be “solved.”

To summarize, I would posit that there are (at least) two things that old people know: 1) life is miraculous, and 2) there are limits on everything. And these two things are related. Every one of us has come up on limits again and again in our lives, and as we face old age and death, we are coming up on the biggest limit of them all. Yet, all of us have an increasing awareness of the miraculousness that we are here at all. No matter how many scientific books I read that try to scare me with their tales of how brief the existence of the earth will be, these cosmologists mostly just convince me of the miracle that I am here at all to experience it and appreciate it. (You might read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” or “The Star-Splitter” in this regard.)

And there is another analogy one might make.

There are some Buddhist scholars (David Loy), Christian theologians (Thomas Berry) and renegade cosmologists (Brian Swimme) who muse that perhaps the universe has evolved humans to order to have a way for the cosmos to appreciate its own existence. This is a nice story. It could also be the story we tell about the old. From the far end of our existence, we can appreciate life in ways that young people cannot. We have come to appreciate life and all that it involves. We recognize the limits and respect them. And we acknowledge the miracle of it all and are in awe.

I recommend that you re-read King Lear and think about limits and miracles. To encourage yourself or for a way for thinking about the play later, you can read my piece “Lear at Great Books.”