Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Joy of Aging

We all do it. We all get older. We are all getting older on a daily basis. Yet, unless we are a first growth Bordeaux we do not believe that there is any joy in aging.

At best, we might say that someone is aging gracefully. When a man seems to be stoic about his inevitable and inexorable decline we grant him a measure of virtue. Mostly, for not bothering us with the details of his physical degradation.

It's almost too much of a cliche to say it, but our culture values youth. It adores the young; it yearns for their lithe perfect bodies; it seeks to emulate their passionate natures, their imprudent actions. We are looking for a way to freeze youth in time, so that we will never change, never get old, never suffer the ravages of advancing age.

We all want to be young again. We regret that we never can. We want to regress to those halcyon days when life was one big party, when we had no cares, no responsibilities, and nothing to keep us from the pursuit of pleasure.

Since I am not, by any measure, any longer in the bloom of youth, you should know what is coming next.

The joy of youth is one thing. No one should ever judge the young for acting their age. But do those of us who are no longer young really want to return to those days when we were callow, inexperienced, and immature? Do we want to go back to the time when we were dependents, not responsible for ourselves or anyone else, outsiders to the great game of human commerce and community, buffeted by decisions made by others.

Would you want to trade adulthood for a life of dancing on the beach? Do you really want your children to grow up and become beach bums?

By valuing youth beyond reason-- and that is what it means to erect a cult to youth-- we are emulating the passionate intensity of youth. But we are also telling ourselves that at some point, relatively early in our natural life span, we are going to reach our peak. After that peak, life is all downhill.

In a youth culture we tick off the years in terms of what we lose: our looks, our clear skin, our glow, our health, our hair, our minds, our bodily functions... until we become dottering and drooling old fools depending for the most elementary vital functions on the kindness of nurses.

And you were wondering why so many people get depressed? Or why happiness is so elusive?

We may all consider that we are in perfect harmony with nature, but our youth culture forces us to fight it at every turn. Some of the battles in this war are innocuous enough. We are rushing off either to whiten our teeth or to smooth our our wrinkles. We indulge every manner of cosmetic surgery... all to prevent that dread possibility that we might actually look our age.

So desirous are we of recovering our lost youth that we plunge into psychotherapies that induce regression to earlier childhood states. We find some strange salutary pleasure in keeping in touch with our inner child.

Those of us who think that adolescence is the highpoint of human moral development indulge in constant and meaningless rebellion against all manner of authority.

We have engaged ourselves in a losing war against nature, and then we wonder why we find it so difficult to feel any measure of happiness.

As Aristotle put it, happiness involves progress, it involves improving our skills, getting better at what we do well, learning through experience. As Aristotle knew well, happiness is antithetical to a culture that worships youth.

If you are still basking in the glow of youth, I can promise you that the older you get the more you will see the virtue in the Chinese precept called: filial piety. It refers to the respect that youth owes to age.

Filial piety recognizes that age most often embodies the wisdom that comes from experience, and that youth should respect such wisdom. Young people who cannot take advice will spend their lives reinventing the wheel.

The young follow their passions; they accumulate objects; they seek pleasure with a wild abandon that the rest of us are supposed to envy. The young are short on experience; thus they are constantly learning from their mistakes. And they need to have enough freedom to make some mistakes.

Older people are more temperate in their demeanor, more rational in their judgments, more tolerant in their outlook, more skilled at social interactions, and more dignified in their demeanor.

Nowadays we in the West are engaged in a great struggle against rising Asia, especially with the empire that is China. Can we succeed in this struggle if we are always looking back with nostalgia for a lost time and a lost feeling? Would it not be better to do a 180 degree turn and start facing forward, looking to the joy of self-improvement, and the special joy of a more ethical perspective on life.

1 comment:

Roslyn said...

This won't really have success, I feel like this.