|Behold one smart dude.|
It's a commonplace, even the stuff of standup comedy, that we are not aging well. Our generation has been in denial of the aging process since the first of us began to hit our thirties, thirty years ago. Our obsessive jogging, iron-pumping, power-walking and ingestion of anti-aging substances and vitamin supplements has made us the butt of ridicule.
It's partly our own, narcissistic fault, but not entirely our fault. I've been pointing out for years how, when we were kids, the American mass media made a cult of youth, and we all got swept up in that. Our parents and their parents accepted aging as part of life. We, on the other hand, were told that young was good and old was bad, and naturally, when we ourselves began aging, we fought the idea tooth and nail, with every resource available to us. We have not, so far anyway, gone gentle into that good night.
But now that many of us are past sixty, (I'm 57 as I write this) we're gradually cooling into acceptance, realizing that diet and exercise are not going to make death go away. I have noticed a tendency among my contemporaries now to echo the twilight grumbling we have heard over the past decade or so from the generation that preceded us: "Old age is not for the faint-hearted," "Youth is wasted on the young," "Getting old sucks." Yes, with our increasingly bad knees, fallen arches and stiff necks, we're becoming geezers, despite the fact that our generation made the station wagon obsolete, replacing it with the minivan, because we didn't want to be seen driving around in Mom and Dad's car.
So I think the time is right for a word of, well yes, consolation. Grumbling about old age is nothing new. Since death is part of the human experience and always has been, the ages have had much to say about it. You all know the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the one about to everything there is a season, etc. The Bible is full of things like that, and so are many other ancient writings.
Which brings me to Seneca. Many of you have never heard of him, many of you have. For those who have not, he was a Roman philosopher of the Stoic school, born about the same time as Christ, c. 4 B.C. He died in A.D. 65, and was a major player in the Roman politics of his day despite ill health, exile and the danger which was never far from politics in the age of Augustus.
The Stoics were characterized by their attitude toward life, their root idea being one of acceptance. If you desire nothing, nothing can be taken away from you, and so forth. Early Christian thinking owes much to the Stoics, although they of course had no belief in the redemptive death or a transcendent God -- what obeisance they paid to the gods of Rome was a question of duty to the state, not allegiance to a personal deity. But how much like Bible verses the following Stoic declarations sound! "What fortune has made yours is not your own;" "The boon that could be given can be withdrawn."
The Stoics' acceptance of what life dishes out, with an ix-nay on kicking and screaming, still echoes for us today. (I will NOT use the currently-fashionable word "resonates;" -- journalists, who imitate each other like parrots, have beaten that word to death.)
I was reading some of Seneca's letters the other day over my morning coffee, and found something he said about old age worthy of jotting down. Jot it down, boomers:
"...We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious when its season is ending. The charms of youth are greatest at the joy of its passing. It is the final glass which pleases the inveterate drinker, the one that sets the crowning touch to his intoxication and sends him off into oblivion. Every pleasure defers until its last its greatest delights. The time of life which offers the greatest delight is the age that sees the downward movement -- not the steep decline -- already begun; in my opinion even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own -- or else the fact of not experiencing the want of any pleasures takes their place. How nice it is to have outworn one's desires and left them behind!" -- Letters From A Stoic. (London: Penguin Books, 1969, 2004). pp. 58.
And now, on to a breakfast of fresh fruit, whole wheat toast and cereal, rather than our parents' familiar bacon and eggs.
But this in full knowledge that there remain 986 days until I turn 60, and tomorrow it will be 985, and not all the fresh fruit and whole wheat toast in the world will stop that.