Aging Consciously

I look at everything that I have done,
The years, the days, the hours;
Life it don’t overcome,
But it opens like a flower.

Love More or Less
Marianne Faithfull, Tom Mcrae

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When I retired three years ago, I found myself with a large amount of free time, and financial resources sufficient to enjoy it. At the same time, I became aware of the challenges of aging, both by observing older people, and by noting the appearance of various twinges in my own body. I began to wonder why some older people seem beaten down by age, and resigned to further decline and death, while others seem to retain an enthusiasm for life, creativity, and friendship throughout their final years.

I have tried to follow the better of these examples by embracing a positive attitude, healthy living, good relationships, and my work as a writer and musician – to age consciously, through deliberate, hopefully life affirming choices. I have also learned that, although this commitment is necessary for the life I want to live, it alone is not sufficient. The challenges of aging and of mortality are daunting. To be honest, they can be terrifying. I find myself needing some sense of purpose, some work that will guide me through these fertile, unexplored, and ultimately final years I have been given.

Many of my contemporaries find this sense of purpose in religion, but I have never been able to embrace the leaps of faith and submission to spiritual authority organized religions demand. I have worked and lived my life as a scientist. I find enough wonder and beauty in the scientific explanation of the universe to fill my heart with a constant gratitude for being alive. When I read the words of Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, William Blake, and other spiritual masters, I find them to be more in tune with the traditions of humanistic reason and the joys of artistic expression, than the labyrinthine, guilt-ridden theologies required by most religions.

So, I find myself wondering how I can think of my remaining years in a way that makes them the great adventure I know they can become. Most importantly, how can I do this through reason, empiricism, and perhaps just a touch of faith and spiritual love? This is particularly difficult in a culture like ours, which places its greatest value on the dreams of youth, the seductions of the new, and the visible symbols of professional and economic success. In an often-quoted line from Yeats: “This is no country for old men.”

Fortunately, I have been blessed with a humanities education, which gives me some tools for answering these questions (as well as the ability to quote Yeats, a skill which is of less use to me as a happily married man than it was in my wilder days). In the course of going back over the library I’ve accumulated since high school, I seem to have found an answer in the same place I find answers to most questions: In the writings of Classical Greek Philosophers, particularly Aristotle, whose thinking has always resonated with my own perception of the world.

In his Ethics, Aristotle describes the highest good humans should strive for as ευδαιμονία, or eudaimonia. This is often translated as happiness, and although happiness fits as a literal translation, I think that our modern association of happiness with money, status, and consumption has devalued the term. Bliss and blessedness are much better translations, but the interpretation that strikes me as most fitting is flourishing.

Aristotle tried to understand the flux of existence by arguing that everything has a deep nature, an innate potential that is unique to it, and that becomes actualized over time. We can understand the seeming chaos of existence as a grand dance of everyone and everything moving toward a realization – a flourishing – of its potential. The important part of this idea is that this potential is inherent in the nature of the thing itself – not in some abstract, idealized, Platonic other. So, the big bang becomes a universe because the laws governing universes formed within it during its first few nanoseconds. A vibrating string becomes music because the physics of sound and the biology of hearing enable us to perceive harmony and rhythm, tension and resolution. Similarly, seeds become plants, bunnies become rabbits, babies become adults, and old men become . . .?

Every person, at every age strives to express his or her potential (they really can’t avoid doing so), and to flourish in so doing (if they are fortunate). This goal takes on a unique flavor at this time in my life: I am closing in on my last chance to actualize whatever potential remains unrealized within in me. The thought of anyone dying without realizing their unique, innate gifts – without flourishing – strikes me as terribly sad. Putting it bluntly, my purpose, my responsibility, my great adventure in these final years, is to complete myself before I die.

This has become the focus of my desire to live and age consciously, and it has placed everything I experience in a sharper focus. If music touches me more profoundly, if literature resonates with a deeper understanding, and if the beauty of nature, art, and well-graced men, women, and children is more arresting, it is because all of these move me toward this completion.

At the start of this essay, I included as an epigram a few lines from a song written by the wonderful Marianne Faithfull. These lines capture this idea in far fewer words than I have needed. Repeating them offers a perfect end to this essay:

Life it don’t overcome,
but it opens like a flower.

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