Dear J and A,
About this time three years ago you sent me an email and quoted an aunt who said: “Show me one good thing about growing old!” I bristled at that, and promised to send you an excerpt from an article published in the New York Times by David Remnick, after he interviewed Solzhenitsyn. In the article was a small section where Solzhenitsyn muses about his experience of aging. Something about it appealed to me greatly. I include it in the document which is attached.
My original intent was to dash off my reply, but then I got thinking – and that is always dangerous! Three years later you are getting my reply, which has wandered far from where it started – but here it is.
So, let’s return to your long-ago email and the quote “Show me one good thing about aging!” Why do I react when I run into viewpoints such as this? Heaven knows I hear a lot of pessimistic opinions about old age from some of the 145 seniors who share this Lodge – and not always from those in the worst physical shape! However, before I give you a summary of my musings, let’s return to Solzhenitsyn. “Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn” no less – a burr under the saddle wherever he was! Banished to Siberia for a decade or so, he was eventually able to return to his dear homeland Russia after Stalin’s downfall. Shortly afterwards he was kicked out – once more exiled, this time to the West when it became known that he had smuggled the manuscript for “Gulag Archipelago” out of Russia to be published. Given refuge by the USA, he lived there for 18 years, almost as a recluse. While there, he managed to offend many of his hosts by his harsh criticism of the ills of capitalism and the materialistic obsession of Western society. Communism, socialism, democracy – all felt the lash of his words, pointing out the failures he saw.
In May of 1994 he was allowed to return once more to Russia. He lived out his remaining years in a villa in the woods in a Moscow suburb. Formerly the properties there were occupied by the elite – the “Party Loyalists”. I believe one was given to Solzhenitsyn by the Russian government, despite his continuing criticism, apparently in recognition of the man’s greatness and integrity. It was there that David Remnick interviewed him and wrote the article which contains Solzhenitsyn’s description of aging:
How much easier it is then, how much more receptive we are to death, when advancing years guide us softly to our end. Aging thus is in no sense a punishment from on high, but brings its own blessing and a warmth of colors all its own — There is even warmth to be drawn from the waning of your own strength compared with the past – just to think how sturdy I once used to be! You can no longer get through a whole day’s work at a stretch, but how good it is to slip into the brief oblivion of sleep, and what a gift to wake once more to the clarity of your second or third morning of the day. And your spirit can find delight in limiting your intake of food, in abandoning the pursuit of novel flavors. You are still of this life, yet you are rising above the material plane — Growing old serenely is not a downhill path but an ascent.
Solzhenitsyn was 82 when Remnick interviewed him. He died in 2008 at the age of 89. One of his statements that Remnick recorded was: “For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life”.
I treasure Solzhenitsyn’s description of his journey through old age. It has a beauty and peace that I would wish to experience myself, and that I would wish for everyone else too. Realism, however, forces me to acknowledge that he lived, struggled, achieved and died on a plane most of us never approach. For example, I doubt that an old black woman living in a Chicago ghetto flat, with no air conditioning and in the midst of a summer heat wave, would find much resonance with that excerpt! And, honestly, neither would most of our companions in this excellent seniors’ residence, I expect. My guess is that we’d fall somewhere between Solzhenitsyn’s position and that of my hypothetical black woman in Chicago. So that left me struggling to verbalize what I do feel about old age, and why being excessively negative about it seems unsatisfactory. I recognize that there are many, many life factors which come into play here. We enter our latter years with different life experiences, different financial situations, armed with different strengths and burdened with the different infirmities that age dishes out. Despite acknowledging all this, I still feel that in general our Western culture gives old age a “bum rap”. It is a topic that is seldom discussed, even avoided. When discussed, it is to lament and enumerate the negatives that may accompany it. Somewhere around 1315 Dante wrote his “Divine Comedy”. In one part he is describing the entrance to Hell. Above the massive and gloomy gates was the inscription “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” At the risk of sounding either harsh or annoyingly naïve, I suggest that Dante’s words come close to encapsulating the unacknowledged attitude of our society towards age and death.
After all that preamble, here is an attempt to summarize my position: Every phase in life, including age and death, has its pluses and negatives. For example:
Positives – beauty, innocence, promise of tomorrow.
Negatives – vulnerability, powerless to forces in their environment, helpless in the face of abuse, poverty or lack of affection.
Positives – thrill of leaving childhood and becoming adult, excitement of tasting freedom, challenges of all sorts. Confidence in their ability to do anything.
Negatives — vulnerability to many dangers and heartaches as their exuberance outstrips their life experience and judgement.
One could go on through every succeeding phase of life. In general most people in our Western culture would agree that life has ups and downs, good and bad, even tragic and heroic aspects, and that these are experienced very unevenly. Still, most people consider life to be good and worth the struggle. Yet when we enter old age, the attitude seems to change. Now the song is sung almost entirely in the minor key! We seem to focus on the negative – the deterioration of bodily health and strength and sometimes of mental acuity. The perceived lack of purpose for living, the loss of having value for society, the struggle to accept and live with pain, and the acknowledgement of the inevitability of death: all viewed as negative, all distasteful, all devoid of any saving grace or positive spin. The “party line”, so to speak, is gloomy and is expressed by saying “Show me one good thing about growing old!” Why is this so prominent in our society?
My attempt to find a reasonable answer to that question led to these observations. There are cultures in our world that view the last phase of life differently. My thumbnail sketch of what I see as the prevailing attitude towards aging and death in our culture is not a universal one. A significant number of other cultures exhibit social attitudes which are markedly different to ours. The Asian, Nigerian, and North American Aboriginals (to name a few examples) seem to regard the last phase of life as just part of the normal story of life. Death comes as a friend – indeed, often as a friend in time of need! By contrast, how often in our culture have we seen Death pictured as the Grim Reaper, a hooded, masked man holding a scythe? In other cultures, members living through their “senior years” are respected for the wisdom accumulated over long years of living, and are seen as important for the role they fill as elders in their community. Their care and support by the younger members seems to be accepted as the norm and to be expected. There is one delightful story of a tribe of Southwest Hopi people who, years ago, threw a joyous celebration whenever a very old member lost his or her last tooth! No more pain or aggravation – they could eat their corn meal mush in comfort and the tribe shared their joy.
I am aware that this presents a scenario where the ideals of a culture are lived out perfectly. The actual life of their elders might well have been less rosy. What I do find attractive in the societies mentioned, though, is the unemotional acceptance of aging and dying as a normal part of life. As well, the belief that the old should be valued as the guardians of their cultures and for their accumulation of life experience, has merit.
However – in all these cultures mentioned – the norm is that the elderly live out their lives within that of the extended family and their interests seem to be solely the life and activities of that small unit, family, group or tribe. One black home care worker from Africa remarked to me in a disapproving tone, “We do not put our old people in places like this – they stay in our homes.” When questioned about the activities and interests of their elderly, she hardly understood the question! There were no interests expected except those that existed within the family circle. Would we Western oldsters settle for that? I think not! The saying about “wanting to have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind. Our ideal seems to be that we want independent lives, freedom to follow our own interests and enjoy life, and close family relationships as well! There is a legitimate desire in each of us to be known as the individuals we are – and not to be pigeon-holed into impersonal categories such as the age, disease or disability we represent. These are things we live with and handle, but they are not who we are.
So where does all this leave me? I started out just to protest against what I saw as a negative view of aging which did not give the whole picture. Gradually I came to believe that this was not necessarily the view of all old people, but rather an unconscious acceptance by individuals of society’s stereotype. As I near the end of my meandering, it becomes apparent that I needed to find a way of picking out the points that are most important to me. My search has led me down many paths and clarified what factors are indispensible for me, if I am to live a full and satisfactory life and make the most of the last segment allotted to me. This is a personal position and not a guideline for all old people! However I can suggest that the exercise of searching for and determining the factors you need to make the most of these years, could be useful.
There are three proverbs or sayings that speak to me at this stage:
1—“It is advisable to learn how to accept the inevitable” – Buddhist
2—“Serenity is not the absence of storms, but peace amidst the storms” – Anon.
3—“God’s in his Heaven, All’s right with the world” – Robert Browning
#1 Proverb – Western society could benefit from accepting the wisdom of this proverb. Aging and dying form just another, if final, stage of life. As old people we could minimize our complaining about our difficulties and handle them as graciously as possible, while at the same time expecting to experience the good factors which are part of this stage of life. At every possible opportunity we elders should challenge our society’s stereotype and say “There is another, and better, viewpoint to consider.”
#2 Proverb – This is one of my favourite proverbs. It is helpful at any stage of life, but perhaps particularly in our later years. If we can learn to see and enjoy the good and beautiful that exists along with our trials, we can build a peace that enriches and sustains us on our journey. Indeed, our life experience tell us that “This too will pass”. We know we can weather the storms and come out on the other side and move on. It has happened many times before. Having inner peace despite our “storms” is a realistic option.
#3 Proverb –Some background is helpful as we consider this segment from Robert Browning’s poem, “Pippa Passes”, written in 1841. Pippa, the young girl who is the subject of the poem, was cast as an indentured servant, who had only one day a year as holiday – free to do as she wished. Such a person would live and work in extremely difficult if not brutal, circumstances. To be an indentured servant was to be a victim of a kind of legal slavery, with little hope of ever being freed. Despite the ugly reality of her situation, Browning presents her as one in whom hope lived unquenched. She sang as she skipped her way through her glorious “free” day:
The year’s at the spring
And Day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew pearled
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his Heaven-
All’s right with the world!
Surely even Browning knew this beautiful and touching poem was not from the real world! However what I get from it fits very well with my view of old age. We must look for and savour to the full the intense pleasure often felt in old age from things experienced each day. The beauty of the sunrise, the laughter of a child, the unsolicited act of kindness from a stranger, the love and support wrapped around us by family members, the flood of memories of things long gone – all are there and very real. Be awake to the singing of a bird on the tree top, to a rabbit scurrying for cover – the list is endless. The sensations of pleasure and gratitude for just being alive can be intense beyond description.
And so the path has led back to where I started. What path you say? I have long had a metaphor for life itself. When I think of my life, I see it not as a series of events, but as a path that leads me onward towards an unknown destination. Down the way a bit the path always bends and goes out of sight. I push on, in trust and anticipation. Sometimes it is hard going, sometimes easy, and always interesting. In recent years I realized that my mental image of the path was changing, it was now steadily climbing.
It was in my effort to put my personal life metaphor into words that I finally realized why Solzhenitsyn’s writing about his aging was so appealing. There is enough similarity in his word picture, and my “path”, in his sense of peace and security to my experience of intense pleasure in the everyday things, to see why the excerpt spoke to me. I am so grateful to the friend who sent me Remnick’s article, for it has given me much pleasure.
When I started writing I intended to lay out a reasoned argument to support the thesis that there were valid reasons for viewing the last stages of life in more ways than one, even in a favourable way. If this effort even partially succeeds in that objective, I will be content. What I was not expecting was to end up in a deeply personal account of the route my path now travels…
The path gets steeper and rougher. Sheldon and I persevere, slowly and with effort. We stop often to rest. We can see back down the mountain side and catch glimpses of the path of yesterdays. Memories come swiftly and we laugh and remember, shed tears sometimes, and muster our strength to move on.
Together we go, until the next tough stretch that requires yet another rest. We had been talking and silently remembering, when I sensed that he was missing – and there he was heading down the path ahead of me! I called. He turned, gave that mischievous grin, waved, and went on around the corner of the path and out of sight. I hurried after him but when I reached the corner he was gone. His path had ended and mine led on.
The path still has smooth stretches and rough ones. There are still lovely vistas and birds singing, but it is lonely. I travel alone. There are many wonderful breaks when family and friends digress from their own life paths to walk a while with me. Life is still good, even in the difficult times. Sometimes when the clouds are low I think I hear a young voice singing: “God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world.”
I cry a bit, laugh a bit, pick myself up and head on down my path into the future.
I welcome your comments on this essay. To comment, please send me an email through the Contact Me page.