New Year’s Resolutions in Old Age

The title of my blog site (When I Come to be Old) comes from a list of Jonathan Swift’s resolutions, made when he was a young adult, about how he was determined to act (or more specifically not to act) when he was old.  His list is worth reviewing by us seniors, just to see how the younger set may perceive us (no comfort there).  This new year, however, I am more interested in thinking about what kind of resolutions old folks should make about themselves?

What kinds of resolutions should old people make?  If you do a search on the web, most of what you will find are suggestions to improve your mental or physical health: take up crosswords, walk at least a mile a day, eat more vegetables.  Yes, of course.  These are common sense maintenance items, and we all are fully aware that learning a foreign language will work our brain harder than watching Brit Box.  I surely make such resolutions, but they usually (in my case) take the form of the negative.  No more than an hour of TV per day, no dessert unless I have walked three miles that day, no more than one restaurant meal a week – and so on.  Games we play with ourselves which (hopefully) make us a little healthier without undue deprivation.

On my doctor’s suggestion upon my query about any possibility of avoiding my mother’s dementia, I have gone back to French. (I once knew enough to pass a translation exam for a graduate degree, but those brain cells seem to have disappeared.) I am using Duolingo and pledged myself to a modest fifteen minutes a day.  I don’t have to worry about reminders; Duo is a pest.  I also continually contrive and amend reading lists and rules (e.g., at least one literary work of fiction or nonfiction for every mystery novel).

But how about other hopes and goals other than those aimed at life extension?  There are at least a couple of other categories.  How about creative endeavors?  Not to be published or hung on our grandchildren’s walls, but for our own satisfaction in doing something which draws on our experience, something, perhaps, that we have always wanted to do.  Most of us know what that means for us – which could be anything from adventuresome cooking to bonsai gardening to a full-length novel.  Here, too, I have found it necessary to set concrete goals for an enterprise which is not concrete at all in its reason or its results.  When I first started to keep a journal over twenty years ago, my resolution was ten single-spaced pages per month – and if I put it off, I had to write all ten on the last day.  It never came to that – but since that time I have produced the minimum (usually far more).  Similarly, when I started a blog, it was with the determination to post a blog at least twice a month and a new story every six weeks.  I have succeeded, at least on the average.

But there are more personal ambitions to do with our states of mind – our souls, if you will.  One of my resolutions this year is to start going back and reviewing my journal from the beginning to see what I can learn about myself.  (See my blog, “Rules of One’s Own,” for the wonderful Marion Milner’s advice in this regard.)

And how about resolutions that have to do with the very fact that we are aging, facing changes we cannot (wholly at least) control, coming closer to the end, however we might define it?  “Do not go gentle into that good night” was a resolve, made not by an old man, but by a younger man (Dylan Thomas) on behalf of his dying father.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children making resolutions for me.  And I don’t want to spend my last years in a “burning and raging” against the “dying of the light.”

Kay Boyle was already old when she formulated her “Advice to the Old (Including Myself).” Boyle, like Swift, warns us about not dwelling on old times or regaling others with our aches or disappointments – but she ends with a challenge to battle despair:

Have no communion with despair; and, at the end,

Take the old fury in your empty arms, sever its veins,

And bear it fiercely, fiercely to the wild beast’s lair.

This is a different kind of battle – not against inevitable death and age, but against self-generated despair, not against the reality of existence but against an antagonistic attitude toward what isFor me, it is not so much a battle (who wants life to be a battle?) as a matter of – resolution.

Resolution is a word with many meanings; at the new year, we often mean it in the sense of “firmness of purpose.”  But it can also mean the “solution to a problem” (as in “the dentist resolved my toothache”) or the “degree of sharpness with which we can see something” (think of the resolution level of your monitor or TV).  All the senses of resolution are related: firmness of purpose is only of use if we can see sharply enough to define the issue we are trying to resolve, and know what action on our part will “resolve” it.

Old age is, in itself, not a problem.  Grief or despair about the changes that old age brings can be a problem and is worth resolving.   But before we can resolve it, we must examine and define it.  Yes, bad habits can come with age and these need to be guarded against (just ask Jonathan Swift), but that is true of all times of life.  And again, perhaps the real sin is to despair at the facts of existence. I spent my childhood wishing to be older; I spent much of my middle age looking forward to retirement.  I am trying hard not to miss the opportunity to enjoy and make the most of my old age.  My resolutions will be to understand my own nature and changes (read the old journals), learn (French and patience, although not necessarily in that order), and work toward some form of resolution with age, provisional though it may be.

For a fictionalized account of a different kind of resolution, you might try “Nothing New.

Rules of One’s Own

I keep a journal and highly recommend the practice. (See my post on journaling in old age.) But, if you ask me why I keep a journal I cannot give you as good an answer as Marion Milner supplied. Marion Milner had a very specific purpose in keeping a journal for seven years: to “find out what kind of experience made me [her] happy.” You see, Marion was becoming aware that her “life was not as I [she] would like it and it might be in my [her] power to make it different.” And her first step was attempting to note every day what kind of things made her happy. You see, like many of us, Marion could not easily articulate what made her happy and was therefore unable to securely answer questions about what her aims in life should be.

The book that Marion Milner (initially under the name of Joanna Field) eventually wrote about this project is entitled A Life of One’s Own. It is a book that I heartily recommend with one caveat – one must persevere through the first couple of chapters. But then… it is a delight. It is not a book that gives you any answers – it is, however, a book that might help you find your own answers. And do not look for this book to pop up on the bestseller list; it was written in 1934. You will probably not even find it in the library, but that does not matter – you will want to own it. Luckily, it is still in print.

Milner gets inspiration from Montaigne and Robinson Crusoe. Montaigne had tried a similar exercise, similarly looking for rules that applied to himself and not necessarily to all mankind. Defoe’s Crusoe lands on a deserted island and has to figure out how to live. And so do we all. The title presumably alludes to Woolf’s A Room of Her One’s Own, which was published just a few years before Milner wrote her book.

Milner finds some surprises. She is much taken with evidence that her happiness seems to not to depend so much on events as it does on the attitude with which she approaches things. She finds that “there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind.” Internal gesture of the mind. One thinks of Montaigne’s comment that “what matters is not what we see but how we see it.” And Milner considers how to use this discovery; more important, she takes us along on her journey to implement this knowledge. And on the way, she gives us as good a manual on mindfulness (without exactly using the current trendy terminology) as I have read to date.

Of course, Milner soon realized that finding happiness involves exploring the roadblocks to happiness. Fear, she found, kept her running in circles. It was her “taskmaster from hell,” and she expends much effort trying to pinpoint what she is afraid of. Death, of course, but more:

Then I began to see it as a fear that my personal identity would be swallowed up and then, gradually, I began to feel that it was this fear which had made me purpose-driven. I felt I had been continually distracted with a life and death issue, I had the desire to always to be getting things done to prove to myself that I existed as a person at all. So it was only very rarely that I had felt safe enough to give up striving, particularly as the enemy was really within my own gates.

Montaigne – long before Churchill – said that his greatest fear was fear. Do you know what you are afraid of?

Your way may not be Marion Milner’s way; she does not expect it to be. But Milner – who later became a renowned psychoanalyst and a distinguished scholar – gives us some advice, a methodology, and great encouragement. When A Life of One’s Own was published, it was well received. Stephen Spender entitled his positive review “The Road to Happiness;” W.H. Auden said that it was “as exciting as a detective story.” And it is. Particularly if, like Jeannette Winterson, you feel that the question “How shall I live” is the most “fierce” and fundamental problem there is. Again, there are no generic answers. Thank goodness.

The story this week is “My Neighbor Opposite,” which portrays another way of realizing what our heart’s desire is. While Milner’s methodology is preferable, there are probably many paths.