Inspiration for an Abundant (Later) Life

THE ART OF AGEING John Lane

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So long as our faculties are reasonably sound and we only suffer from the lesser infirmities of advancing age, our final decades can be joyous and fulfilling. Some people may experience bad health, unhappiness and grief, but for many these years can be amongst the happiest they have known – years that provide unequalled opportunities for creative growth enriched by mature relationships with children, grandchildren, spouse or partner and beloved friends.

It is a period which can offer exceptional opportunities. Compared with the restless uncertainties (or hot-headed idealism) of adolescence, it can provide a satisfying stability. Compared, too, with the hectic business of our middle years – usually taken up with the development of family and career – the first years of retirement give us the freedom to explore those ambitions which other preoccupations denied us in the past. As well as increasing physical difficulties, advanced age can bring its own rewards.

It can replace the shallowness of inexperience with a depth of understanding and complexity of being; and restless speed with the serenity of untroubled leisure. Now there is time for experiment and creativity, time for exploring our different potentials, time to live in accordance with our dreams, time to be ourselves.

And as well as this freedom to find a wide range of new interests, ageing has something else to offer: the value of modesty. When the 93-year-old cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practise his instrument for three hours a day, he wrily replied: ‘I’m beginning to notice some improvement.’

Become a life-loving master
To become an elder is surely (I hope) to grow in wisdom. It is to join the fellowship of those who have found a balance between energy and contemplation, adventure and reflection, enthusiasm and tranquillity. The choice is ours: to become a gloomy pessimist or a life-loving master of the art of living well. ‘I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,’ writes Thoreau.

As I grow older, thinking about death, through all my melancholy there arises a profound sense of acceptance, a recognition of the fragility and impermanence of life. And let’s face it: as Montaigne observed, death is only a few bad moments at the end of life.

Meanwhile, I am relieved to discover that although some faculties are closing down (packing up is probably the better description), other things – inner things – are quietly taking their place. My relationship with the world is shifting from ‘outer’ to ‘inner’ concerns. Joy, silence, stillness and contemplation are becoming more important; making, doing and rushing around becoming much less so. As a young man I was immersed in active living – study, work, the pursuit of career and the rearing of children. My attention now has an inward thrust. I love to read, paint, write and listen to music. I find a growing satisfaction in the observation of small things: how the wind is moving through the boughs of a tree, how the tide advances at the water’s edge; or the beauty of a scarlet sun sinking behind a bank of grey and violet-coloured cloud. These perceptions, like friendship and the discovery of new knowledge, prove to be deeply nourishing.

The simple things
Years ago I took delight in travelling. There was my discovery of India, from which I have yet to recover; and the old, the traditional Japan, hardly less stimulating. In different years I have travelled to Russia, Lithuania, Thailand, Morocco, Cambodia, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and the United States. I now find the contemplation of a few yards of autumnal hedgerow to be enough. Look at the colour of these silvering branches! Look at these ancient white stones and these decaying leaves! Stop to consider the flight of birds settling in the naked branches of a tree and the shining, lacquered surface of a puddle of water. This season’s oozy brown, blancmangey mud has its own magnificence. It’s December, and the cold wind on my face is a reminder that I am alive!

A similar reconfiguration has occurred, I discover, with respect to my appreciation of works of art. I shall never forget the excitement with which I first heard, say, Alfred Deller’s beautiful rendering of Purcell’s Music for a While. That was wonderful enough, but I now appreciate music with a depth and breadth of knowledge of which I had no understanding at that time. The seed of Purcell has flowered into a Paradise garden of exotic and wonderful blooms.

These late years have also given me yet another freedom: the freedom to be myself, to ignore the confirmation of external approval, to reject today’s materialism, its adolescent obsession with fast and excessive living. I like to believe that I have even freed myself from the bondage of conventional behaviour. This is our life, our time, and, within the limits of our responsibilities to others and the environment, it should be enjoyed for its own sake, without constraint from the twin poisons of remorse and guilt.

Life – a tremendous journey
Nonetheless, getting older is no joke. Ageing takes courage and a stoicism which contrasts with the self-confident and assertive mood of one’s earlier years. Ageing is not for the faint-hearted, and anyone who watches the decrepitude of advancing years with a sympathetic eye is often obliged to confess how wretched it can be. ‘To preside over the disintegration of one’s own body, looking on as sight and hearing, strength, speed and short-term memory deteriorate, calls for a heroism that is no less impressive for being quiet and patient,’ writes Mary C Morrison.

Although the speed and the degree with which a body deteriorates will vary from person to person, few escape from illness altogether. Other factors can also complicate the passage of old age: the need to downsize, the continuing responsibility towards children, and, perhaps most traumatic of all, the death of close family members. Old people can face financial difficulties, bemoan the deaths of beloved friends and consider without exaggeration that the better part of our lives has already passed.

Yes, it can be a time of sadness and great loss, but also a rewarding period of meaning and spirituality, one that allows each of us to die content in the knowledge that we have at least in part fulfilled the task of becoming the individual we were born to be. There is, of course, no limit to our endeavour to become that person. A full life should have granted us the opportunity to become aware of the lights and shadows, the ascents and descents, the raptures and the disappointments of that tremendous journey.

Depending on who you are, and on the particular gifts with which you have been endowed, your life should have given you at least a handful of opportunities to realise yourself. That, at least, has been my own experience and that of most of my friends.

Find contentment with what you have and be grateful for it. Forget the troubling but petty problems of everyday life and look around with appreciation. Reciprocate your delight by seeking opportunities to act with gratitude. Be thankful for the opportunity to be alive.

From The Art of Ageing, ©2010 by John Lane, published by Green Books, available from Cygnus Books.