Our Journey Through Time and Existence”     A modern “De Rerum Natura”

 – this Website’s Contribution – the Author’s Legacy 

Origin, human mind, meaning-direction, guidance, support, practical advice, age-death, the future

See  “www.schwab-writings.com”                       ã  H. Schwab,                                               Princeton, 2011/13

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Chapter 8

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About Old Age – is there a homecoming for us?

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The approaching end:

The perception from the inside – descriptively and prescriptively

Cicero’s “De Senectute” and Plato in a modern view

030112 – 110113

Click on “Download” to obtain this essay in Word for Windows for easy print-out

 

Preface: 

Life can be thought of as a trajectory. After the rise in childhood (possibly to age 15), a phase of further building of life’s substance follows (possibly from age 15 to 30). Then comes the long plateau of the middle of life (possibly from age 30 to 60), followed by a gentle decline (possibly from age 60 to 75). This decline becomes more noticeable (usually after age 75) and leads to the end of life (for most, before age 90). Specifically, the time after age 80 can be described as “old age”. Some people, however, demonstrate that neither their actual intellectual interests nor the life dimension (or parameter) of “wisdom” show such decline, but may, rather, show some continuity, and even further progress late in life, as one struggles against physical decline.  

How do people feel while they immutably progress – as on a conveyor belt – finding themselves advancing within each age phase and from phase to phase? Specifically, how does the phase of late “old age”, after 80, look from the inside out? Autobiographies usually are written before people turn very old; consequently, they do not describe the actual “inside experience” of old age. But many of us (if not most), as well as those close to us, go, or will go, through that special phase of life’s completion. What do they experience in their minds? What do or will we? What can or should we do better? What can we learn from each other? What is the experience of life in this phase?

For the most part, a review of the literature regarding old age yields descriptions of old people as either becoming very frail (some cantankerous), or, for some  “carrying on”, even expanding, specific intellectual interests in an exceptional way (see Plutarch, Theophrastos, President Carter, some modern artists and scientists). Hemingway shot himself when he had no further inspirations for writing – and some famous painters became depressive when their style was no longer in demand, as they could not adapt to a new one. From this, one can deduct the recommendation: carry on with earlier interests, and even start a new one in old age (languages and literature, music or another of the arts, some scientific research, and so on). Literature, however, does not yield many writings about the experience of “old age” as seen from the inside. 

Outstanding among historic writers about old age is Cicero (having lived from 106 to 43 BC). Cicero established himself as a leading politician during the late “Republican” phase of Rome’s political structure, prior to the arrival of Caesar’s dominance as a dictatorial emperor. Today, we would use the term “democratic phase”, followed by the reign of a dictator or tyrant. 

During Caesar’s reign, Cicero, for reasons of safety, withdrew from public life and lived in solitude, concentrating on the study of Greek, mainly Stoic philosophy. When Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, Cicero returned enthusiastically to public life, using this opportunity to publish some of his most important writings, including the short scripture commonly called De Senectute (About Old Age). Cicero was only 62 years of age at that time, but he used the literary scheme of presenting his thoughts as the words of a former famous personality – in this case, that of Marcus Porcius Cato, called Cato Maior (who lived from 234 to 149 BC), depicted by Cicero as then being 84 years of age. 

Cicero did not live much longer, actually not reaching old age himself. Being the most forceful “democratic” opponent of the rising next generation of tyrannical dictators, Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus), Cicero was quickly eliminated simply by being murdered (in 43 BC) by Antony’s agents – as were many other freedom-seeking activist Romans in those days, many of whom were murdered by Augustus.  

Cicero had already read the earlier dialogue between Cephalos and Sokrates (or Socrates), written by Plato (428 - 347 BC) on only a couple of pages at the beginning of the “1st Book” in his Politeia (“The Republic”). This specific dialogue was written in 360 BC, when Plato was 68. In this dialogue, the more than 80-year-old Cephalos was presented as seeing the pleasures of the body replaced by the intellectual pleasure of conversing with a philosopher. Socrates, in turn, was presented as seeing in Cephalos a traveler through life a few miles ahead of the others, and asked him for a report. 

Cephalos answered that, among all old people, there is too much concentration on, and talk of, what they have lost in their physical ability and pleasures. He and his friends, who stayed away from that tendency, view old age, rather, as a liberation from passions. 

In the dialogue, Socrates suspects that Cephalos’ wealth makes him feel more at ease than others. Cephalos agrees, but points out that those who build wealth usually also retain the desire to acquire ever more of it, still talking about nothing else late in life. Only those who inherit wealth know how to enjoy it in their old age.

The two then discuss the fear of death, which Cephalos relates to the fear of a Last Judgment – about what wrongs one has done to others in, perhaps, deceiving or defrauding them.

Cicero, in his De Senectute, follows Plato by also concentrating on the three categories of problems – losing one’s physical abilities, losing one’s pleasures, and nearing death. Cicero, however, analyzes the problems of old age as being one subdivided into four subphases or categories. He proceeds by “proving” how the problems in each phase or category can be fully solved by following Stoic philosophy. According to Cicero, these are the phases of old age:

A.    The onset of old age (at about age 60), leading to a loss of position and recognition in society or meaningful occupation, resulting, in turn, in burdensome idleness

B.     Increasing physical restrictions resulting from an aging body

C.     Loss of the basic pleasures of life

D.    The impending approach of the end of life

 

A postscript: It is interesting to note that the rapid expansion and success of the Christian faith in the ancient world came largely from promising a way around the Last Judgment, leading directly into heaven. Equally, Islam, as recently seen so clearly, recruits suicide fighters by promises of instant and direct access to Paradise for martyrs in their jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam – and promises such access also to their numerous innocent victims.

Was the belief in Paradise always a blessing for mankind, or did it lead to neglect of the potential of life and also to less responsibility for the conditions of life on Earth? Did it actually lead to more suffering? 

 

 

The Onset of Old Age, Possible Idleness

The value of the early phase of old age (upon retirement) depends significantly on economic conditions and, mainly, on sometimes difficult choices involving what to dedicate this new phase of life to. Thus, it may become quite constrained and disappointing; or, alternatively, it may become the best phase of one’s life!  

Society has largely retained the habit of phasing people out of their position or occupation into retirement when they reach an age above 60. Lately, with longer retention of health and thus increased life expectancy, the retirement age has shifted toward age 65, and is now even proposed to shift for economic reasons toward age 70. 

Cicero belonged to the upper class of the by then fully developed Roman civilization (not to the always hard-working lower classes). In comparison with our time, one should consider the middle or upper class of North America, Europe, and a few other parts of the world, including the new super-rich in Asia and South America – or in the oil countries.  

Cicero begins with a generally negative concept of old age, as being a time of carrying a burden. To cope with this, he puts emphasis on “character”. People with a relaxed attitude and a sophisticated mind bear old age more easily than do ill-tempered, uneducated people. As Plato’s Cephalos, Cicero points out that sufficient wealth, if combined with wisdom and virtues, helps one to be content in old age. To postpone the beginning of old age, he proposes continued engagement or activities (and, specifically, learning, just as he himself had begun the study of the Greek language and Greek philosophy in his old age).

As they did in Cicero’s time, as well as our own, there exists a wide variety of personal responses to retirement. While some people long merely for the “freedom” offered by retirement, others fear a meaningless life lacking the recognition resulting from their former position; still others attempt to hang onto their occupations as long as they can, even well beyond age 70. Most hope for some pleasant or fulfilling involvement in their old age. As in Roman times, there still are possibilities in political consulting, in public service on a local level in community administration or on commissions, in agriculture, now called “gardening”, and in the arts. 

In our time, however, the variety of possible activities in old age, compared to those in Cicero’s time, seems to have widened considerably – through the development of our culture and the rising level of sophistication of all people – all being globally interconnected with everybody else through travel, communication, and, now, the internet. Leisure activities for a large segment of the people may center on fishing, golfing, bridge, or a social club. Many spend time in gyms or on other exercises. Some spend their time pursuing investments by way of the internet. Additionally, there is mind-stimulating traveling and a multitude of opportunities for Continuing Education! 

Specifically, the old (the “Senators”) should contribute their wisdom to long-term and strategic planning – for instance, on industrial, community, or political “boards”. Typical for our time, there are many possible activities as volunteers for charity. There is also more room or need for activism for a great variety of causes. 

Old individuals should also teach, and thus transfer their knowledge to the younger generations! 

In any event, continued mental engagement and diligence are recommended for both well-being and health (such as maintaining memory through mental exercises) and for the common good.

 

As seen from the inside, many retired people hesitate to become involved in new fields. Actually, it is rather easy to be nominated to the board of almost any nonprofit organization: by merely donating $10,000 to its cause. Upper-level managers, however, cannot see themselves merely as helpers on relatively low commissions. In most fields, financial experts see themselves as superior to practical doers or as overqualified. Some just relax (a bit too much, e.g., reading newspapers, watching TV), and show no energy or initiative to get involved.   

Cicero and most advisors to old people today neglect the fact that the old just don’t have as much energy left as is demanded of them. Many need not only a nap in the afternoon, but feel more tired much of the time. The “view from the inside” indicates an interest in seeing others run around outside – “If they would just leave me alone on the bench, to look at the garden or leave me inside at my desk or on my comfortable chair”. Voluntarily slowing down, as well as the desire to concentrate on life at home, is increasingly the preference of most people as they grow older.

Thus, the richest phase, or one of the richest and personally most rewarding phases, of a person’s life could be the early part of retirement. It offers the combination of freedom and remaining energy with a still-widening horizon in travel, studies and possible civic or artistic engagements – if the initiative is taken to get involved! Later, however, sliding into old age must be countered by one’s own initiative or by supporting stimulation from outside to maintain fullness of life.  

 

Physical Handicaps and Restrictions

Increasing health problems in our bodies have both physical and psychological effects. 

In physical terms, most early medical problems of our time (compared to Cicero’s) can be countered by the unbelievable progress being made in medical knowledge and modern technology – as well as by palliative care. Thus, in that phase, our concentration should not be on self-pity alone, but on finding the right medical specialist and the right hospital with the applicable experience or innovative insight to effectively help. Initiative is required. 

Focusing the mind away from constant attention to medical issues and onto more desirable topics helps improve the quality of life for oneself and for one’s environment.  

Psychologically, however, any suddenly occurring physical problems (and many do appear suddenly!), not to mention slowly developing ones, can appear threatening and can occupy an ever-increasing share of a person’s attention – at worst leading to suffering, fear, and anxiety. This can be explained by the functioning of the brain and human thought. The mind pays attention to foreground experiences – unless “focusing” on themes beyond these experiences (see the comments on thought-sequencing in Chapter 2, “Human Mind”). Thus, if there is no overriding perception or no willful focusing on more elevating matters, the mind will automatically return to even minor aches and pains – and this will dominate conversations with other people who, similarly, continue to report endlessly their small, but to them important ills. (There is one retirement home for the aged near Princeton, New Jersey, however, where friends dining together prohibit any mention of medical subjects at their table!)

People can be equally obsessed by other themes, such as money (investments), power, food, sex, or, at worst, crime (see, for instance, the occurrence of copycat crimes) – or, alternatively, on reaching sainthood through abstinence and prayer – or endless meditation or chant. Personally selected focus, though, does allow the willful return to more enjoyable or more elevated thought sequences and discussions!

This is implied in the Bible’s “Beatitudes,” which demand a “clean heart”! A clean heart may be searched through religious reading and chanting, or by Loyola’s “exercises”– or through Buddhist meditations. At best, however, it is recognized through personal effort in positive focusing and a positive lifestyle within one’s own culture! 

Additionally, as one ages, the view from the inside out, is modified by arising or prevailing “moods”, by emotions or the lack thereof.

Human emotions are not merely neurologically founded; to a large extent, they are biochemically founded. Everybody knows the effect of adrenaline – or of a cup of coffee or of alcohol or of dopamine – or especially when harmfully related to drug consumption. Actually, numerous biochemical substances produced by various glands in the human body can influence mood. Improved food composition, medications and, very important, exercises are the countermeasures – along with stimulating conversation (see the comments by Plato above). 

 

Especially helpful for mood improvement are humor and laughter!

 

What remains may be a tiring or dulling effect of all the medications one is expected to consume in old age, which reduce life’s fullness and joy. 

One should not forget those who do encounter truly serious, sometimes painful, and possibly life-threatening physical problems, or chronic fatigue – and should include them in one’s empathy!

Thus, the inside experience of this phase of life is that of suddenly being restrained in one’s preferred activities – as becoming distant from younger people. This restriction is all the more troubling for those who once preferred a sport or other physical activity. There are dark thoughts about “what is left for me in life”; but this can, and must be, countered as much as possible by taking the initiative in obtaining modern medical treatment or palliative care, in exercises, and, mainly, focusing on the positive aspects of life, on congenial company and humor.

Since moods are not constant, one should take care of oneself and retain enough energy for the remaining, very positive periods of time, in order to fully live when these periods do occur! 

 

The Loss of Life’s Pleasures

The importance attached to the loss of life’s pleasure depends on one’s personal psychological conditions. Shifting our mental focus to the higher remaining pleasures still lets us enjoy and even fulfill our life.

Plato and Cicero count the loss of pleasures as one of the setbacks of old age. They counter this condition, however, with the benefit to be derived from the loss of low passions (those on the lowest level of motivations) and emphasize the remaining higher joys of the human mind – as in conversation with sophisticated friends or, mainly, in studying and applying philosophy.

As one ages, though, one does feel the separation from joyful youth – as belonging at another table in the tent of life, where people eat small portions and merely play cards – and don’t dance exuberantly on the table any longer. I know some older people who always want to sit at the table with the young, to still participate in their joy – while, possibly, actually disturbing the careless world of the latter.

In Chapter 3 of these writings, “Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values”, a matrix is presented in which the various motivations and priorities in life are ranked:

At the most basic level is the satisfaction of the most naturally given needs: survival and satisfaction of physical needs (food, shelter, sex), the great value of companionship with family and the clan, and, already, some aesthetic embellishment of the environment. 

At the middle level lies the seeking of wealth, power, and entertainment. 

And at the highest level we find the search for mental growth, dedication and service to others and the community, and participation in the arts (culture):

 

 

Highest Level:

Mental Exploration

Personality Formation

Growth

Caring Service & Charity

Building a Better Society

Service

Enjoyment of Culture,

Nature,

 the Arts

 

Median Level:

Security and Dignity

Reserves, Freedom

Wealth

Positive Significance in Society

Action Potential

Power

 

Entertainment

Basic Level:

Survival, Procreation

Family and Clan

Basic Aesthetics

 

In fact, the rise to any of the higher motivations compensates for the possible loss sustained at the lower levels, especially for those who can concentrate on the highest level:  Growth, Service, and Culture (Art). 

Again, it is a matter of intentionally cultivating a “clean heart” by making the effort to focus,  again and again, on the higher  aspects of our existence.

Sometimes, one is not called to perform grandiose actions, but merely to “emanate” a positive spirit in life and in empathy to our domestic or business environment. I remember my grandmothers not by anything they may have said, but by their emanation of goodness, participating love and joyfulness to the world around them.

The internet opens the world for participation anytime and anywhere. Intellectually abstract participation in life has become prevalent in our age of internet communication. Endless hours are spent on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia searches and communication – at Skype cost and speed. 

Yes, at old age the view of life from the inside out is one of receding pleasures – but still one of lower pleasures receding first, leaving the higher ones to pursue – if not, emptiness will result.

As said before, one should not forget the very many people who are burdened by serious problems of health, especially also by loneliness, and who lack the means to attract desirable help.

 

Old Age, the Approaching End of Life

In the last phase of life, in genuine old age (usually after age 85), the conduct of life becomes more serious. Personal weakness and withdrawal set in, along with, possibly, serious health conditions and suffering. Caregivers often counter by applying excessive control in their attempts to keep the old person vitalized from morning to evening, failing to allow the quiet and rest desired by the further- aging person. Obviously, though, too much quiet and rest is not good. The middle ground, with its adjustment to sliding conditions, is difficult to find. Some degree of warmth and happiness must remain in life. 

Finally, death is a sad departure, but it can also appear to the departing one as liberation – for some, in the greatest vision-like near-death experience.

 

Here are some comments about the end of life in a view from the inside out:

Initially, it is merely a sudden regret. Later, it becomes increasingly a frequently appearing sadness and a form of suffering, when one or the other of our friends, colleagues, or relatives passes away – some slowly, others suddenly. The risk to one’s own life is increasingly evident. One sees the time coming when oneself, or – more threatening – one’s companion in life will pass away! Will one remain in great loneliness? More important, will one have to leave one’s much loved companion in such a situation of loneliness? How sad that would be!

Not only does the social circle become smaller in old age, one also develops an attitude of greater isolation, which, socially speaking, leads to fewer invitations, as well as to less participation in organized activities, such as clubs.

One feels living on a stretching touch-screen, where an invisible hand lets everything around us recede – slowly at first but then further and further away, until everything appears far away and becomes increasingly unreachable. Long-distance travel may be the first to go. An excursion to a nearby town or to friends a few miles away is no longer desirable. Sitting comfortably at home is preferred. Yet, that is felt as isolation.

The spirit always feels and stays younger than the aging body, as if the same young “soul” were living in a slowly crumbling house. The body becomes a burden – sometimes even feeling physically heavy – and, with arthritis increasing in the knees or other joints, unpleasant to move at all. This lets the body also become a psychological burden.  

How can any joy or optimism remain? Surprisingly, joy and laughter can remain quite well – not physically but psychologically restrained, or, more accurately, biochemically restrained – where the happiness or laughter-causing hormone (such as dopamine) often appears to be missing in the body (actually, in the brain). Not only present joy, but also optimism for the future, is impeded by similar biochemical causality.    

In theaters, there are certain curtains that permit or inhibit vision to the other side, depending on lighting conditions. Similarly, in the life of the very old, it often appears as though a curtain has appeared – the view of the world appearing beyond such a virtual curtain becoming more opaque and even turning darker at certain times or with age.

At other times, it can appear as if one were viewing oneself and life from a distance, as seen from the audience, as acting somewhere on a distant stage.

Thus, it appears as though the pursuit of life itself feels like a “sliding down” – mostly slowly but occasionally in steps, sometimes recovering from a step, only to continue the slide thereafter. Insecurity sets in with every step one takes, with, for instance, the problems to be confronted the next day.

A typical sensation of old age – but one not always felt as a burden – is the feeling of being tired – though this doesn’t happen all the time. There are still some brilliantly clear moments, some hours, days, or weeks. 

There are moments of specific, very intensive perception of beauty in this world, often in some detail: sunshine on the garden, a flower, a happy young child, the presence of one’s companion in life!

It is important not to let difficult moments grind down one’s own resilience and, most importantly, the resilience of one’s companion. Outside care-giving help must be found and engaged in order to unburden one’s companion, in order to let him or her remain fully positive during the bright moments or periods of time when being together, which do occur again and again!

It is a positive experience, that the moment one starts on an intellectually or emotionally challenging task – some interesting reading or, more so, some interesting writing, work of art, or conversation – all feeling of tiredness, a headache for instance, disappears for the time being. This leaves fullness of life, joy of companionship, the possibility of transferring experience to the young, time for formulating one’s legacy – and thus appreciation for being alive.

However, as aging progresses and the feeling of being tired intensifies, there is no further vision for the next five years – or even for the next year. One feels “ready to go”.

Circumstances change when a surviving, lonely person decides to seek shelter by moving in with a child, with his or her family. Sometimes questions of dominance arise, as they did in early marriage. The old person cannot dominate nor disturb the young family. At the same time, the young family should not over-control and critique the old person, thereby reducing his or her dignity. The right distance must be found. The old person’s “giving up” only increases his or her isolation. Historically speaking, large farmhouses contained separate living quarters for the old (in our time, a small apartment nearby would do), where they were also supplied with their needs and supported – thus the warm harmony of an ideal multigenerational family could be maintained. 

The feeling of isolation and departure among the old becomes especially intense when an accident, a sudden deterioration in health, or a diagnosis from a physician indicates that death is approaching. One can then feel like becoming surrounded by a shell or veil, leaving one in a life by oneself – separate from all others – not belonging any longer to their community. This can happen to the young as they are met by a negative fate or, more regularly, by the old. Tormenting thoughts occur: Will death be painful? How will it be? Where will I be thereafter?

What is left and what becomes ever more important is caring for those who will be left behind. Have they been provided for? Where, and how, will they live? Can they cope? How will the inheritance be distributed – all the many objects and meaningful souvenirs collected over a lifetime or once inherited from earlier generations? Can a family archive be formed?

More troubling questions: What actually is the mental legacy I leave behind? Should I write it down? What did I stand for in life? What did I accomplish? What would I like to be remembered for? What are my departing, warm wishes for my children and grandchildren?

Plato and Cicero considered life after death as the soul’s judgment followed by an eternal life. Alternatively, the then more modern Cicero also considered the possibility of a complete end upon death. Cicero found peace in each view. A Christian finds peace, too, in divine forgiving and eternal life after death. The modern person may see in death an end – as for everything in nature – at best, a true homecoming to nature – and may find great peace in that vision, too.

My own “near-death experience” and vision toward the beyond was most serious and grandiose – beyond description – and also, most positive – beyond description! It was so peaceful and harmonious, the feeling of having found an eternal home! I was very sad when the doctors succeeded in bringing me back to life in this world. 

The last words of Steve Jobs as he died were, three times: “Oh! --- Wow!” … then he passed away. 

 

Closing comments

The reaction to and experience with old age, as well as one’s own behavior in old age, results largely from the culture or environment one lives in – and one’s remaining financial means and remaining social connections, at best sufficiently provided for by earlier savings or benefits – and, hopefully, how one is harbored in a loving family! 

To some extent, one can influence the cultural factor – whether living in the “West” or moving to an Indian guru, or elsewhere.  Our culture now finds itself between old religious concepts, on one side, and discoveries made possible by the sciences on the other side. Thus we see the origin of this universe as being beyond all comprehension – immensely grandiose and intellectually structured, augmented by the probability concepts of quantum theory. We also recognize, however, that all will come to an end in the distant future! 

Cicero compared approaching death to a mariner finally sighting land.

We see ourselves observing and participating in this world and in evolving nature for a few decades only. We must recognize that we have the full responsibility for our actions and our participation in society – within the limits of our personal freedom. We must grasp the initiative. We are responsible not only for our actions (and what we leave undone), but also for what we “emanate”, what we contribute to our environment, by being just the way we are or should be!

We must accept our aging as that of only one organism in all of transient nature – and still fulfill as best we can every positive hour remaining for us in this world – while admiring the grandiose structure and beauty of nature on Earth – and warmly cherishing the ties of our heart – mainly to those close to us – our family, also our friends, and specifically also to the suffering ones – and to nation and society at large – even to nature.

 

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