For much of the time when we are old we are blessed with the knowledge of a lifetime well led.
Ageing can be wonderful. It is often wrongly portrayed as a bane rather than a blessing. Maurice Chevalier perhaps sums up this attitude to growing older:
Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
This is surely misguided. Concern and fear of ageing is misguided on philosophical and empirical grounds. There is strong evidence that once past middle age psychological well-being (WB) improves. Sone’s classic study A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States:
“Consistent with prior studies, Global WB and positive Hedonic WB generally had U-shaped age profiles showing increased WB after the age of 50 years. However, negative Hedonic WB variables showed distinctly different and stronger patterns: Stress and Anger steeply declined from the early 20s, Worry was elevated through middle age and then declined, and Sadness was essentially flat.”
Viktor Frankl has provided a strong rationale for why this should be the case. Why ageing should be embraced with enthusiasm:
The old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.Viktor E Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust
The opportunities to act properly, the potentialities to fulfill a meaning, are affected by the irreversibility of our lives. But also the potentialities alone are so affected. For as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.Viktor E Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust
If Frankl’s positive embrace of old age is too much, the stoics have another approach consistent with psychological well-being:
The Stoics, then, would advise us to cut loose at the very source of our rage against the horrors of old old age by becoming indifferent to old old age’s claim on us. After all, it is out of our control anyhow. With no expectations or desires, we will experience no geriatric depression.Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of an Authentic Old Age
Undoubtedly ageing can be associated with infirmities, with aches and pains. Often there is memory loss. Yet for much of the time when we are old we are blessed with the knowledge of a lifetime well led. There is an inevitable cycle to our lives:
Every age of man has a certain philosophy answering to it. The child comes out as a realist: he finds himself as convinced that pears and apples exist as that he himself exists. The youth in a storm of inner passion is forced to turn his gaze within, and feel in advance what he is going to be: he is changed into an idealist. But the man has every reason to become a sceptic: he does well to doubt whether the means he has chosen to his end are the right ones. Before and during action he has every reason for keeping his understanding mobile, that he may not afterwards have to grieve over a false choice. Yet when he grows old he will always confess himself a mystic: he sees that so much seems to depend on chance; that folly succeeds and wisdom fails; that good and evil fortune are brought unexpectedly to the same level; so it is and so it has been, and old age acquiesces in that which is and was and will be.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections
There is no point being pessimistic about ageing, about growing older. Look back on life and relish what you have achieved. This is doubly so if life has been hard, if you have suffered and faced adversity. Nothing can touch your past, you’ve banked it and it will live forever:
The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.Viktor E Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust