Leaping into old age

If orange is the new black, 65 is the new 13 — with a little 21 thrown in for good measure.

Those over 65 stand at the boundary of a brave new world that requires an explorer’s mindset because the rules, regulations and requirements of the old life, the old country, won’t work in the new.

“The second half of life is a summons to a life of the spirit, to ask, and answer for ourselves, uniquely, separately, what matters most,” wrote Jungian analyst James Hollis.

We are changing, and will continue to change, as much from within as without.

Just as we were over taken by something much bigger than ourselves at puberty, beyond periods and pimples, so, too, we are again grasped and tossed about like a bone in a dog’s mouth.

Women are reminded of the hormonal changes during the years-long menopause and post-menopause, and men, much more subtly, during andropause.

We see daily reminders of the changes in our personal geography –— both physical and psychological — and remember friends and acquaintances who never made it this far.

About 56 million people die every year, most never getting a chance to join the senior network — 110 billion people have lived since the dawn of time, many having died long before 65.

Instead of bemoaning the failing vision and hearing, the body parts heading south, we can strive to be grateful that we belong to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the old, with a modicum of knowledge to ease those aches and pains.

With that comes more peace, more acceptance, more understanding of what is important.

In spite of COVID and other inequities, we live in the best of times.

If, as Kris Kristofferson reminded us, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, we have fewer things to lose post-65 — fewer aspirations, fewer goals, fewer years.

After the mortgages, after putting kids though university, after the career, we’re free to move beyond the Prufrockian paralysis and dare to disturb the universe.

In The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot puts these words into the mouth of his dithering anti-hero, sentiments that many of us parrot 110 years after the Anglo-American poet wrote them.

“I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.”

We can move beyond the dithering and dare to be free, finally, to relish life, to drink it to the lees, to drain the bottle with gusto, the way Zorba the Greek would have done it, to dive into the “full catastrophe,” affirming and embracing whatever life sends our way — and go out of our way to find and surf chaos.

We can choose not to complain about our aches and pains, but welcome the wisdom that comes with accepting the pain – and the inevitable demise.

What is the alternative? Letting life slip away as we watch the virtual version on TV? Run to the modern-day priesthood — physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists — for a pill that might help us hang onto our youth, vigour and smooth-lined faces or do we follow the path to where nature will take us — willingly or kicking and screaming?

The end will be the same, but we can choose our attitude and how we get there.

On this journey of self-discovery, it is time to take Hollis’ advice and “review every commitment, every friendship, every practice and every summons and say in a new way, ‘I will not serve that which does not serve me.’”

We don’t have to go to a monastery or an ashram to find out how. The poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson laid out a frame for life post-65 in Ulysses, his anthem to muscular old age.

The Greek hero of the Trojan War, after his hard-earned, 10-year journey home to Penelope and Ithaca, chafed under the contentment and constraints of life in a rocking chair. He longed for adventure and the open sea.

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, shortly before his death at 83, echoed those sentiments in his scholarly, yet avuncular way:

“In my own life, I am now looking back and I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize ‘I’m not striving for anything.’ What I’m doing now is not a means of achieving something later.

“After a certain age, there’s not a future, and suddenly the present becomes rich and it becomes a thing in itself which you are now experiencing.”

Like the new 13.

Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hahn, both post-65, advice that if we only do one thing to achieve peace of mind, count your breath. It keeps us in touch with the present.

The present, ah, the present. It can teach us to appreciate where we are right now, and the T-shirt that says grumpy old man (or woman) because we have earned the saying, the T-shirt and the wrinkles.

“It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and sober judgment,” wrote Roman statesman Cicero in How To Grow Old.

“These qualities are not lacking in old age, but, in fact, grow richer as time passes.”

Cicero didn’t quite make it to 65; he was killed, at 63, by Mark Antony’s henchmen. But 63 was old in 43 BC and the elderly, unless they made enemies of the rich and powerful, were usually treated with respect.

Modernity does not treasure the old, often mistreats them, us, as something disposable. We’ve all witnessed that abysmal treatment in old-folks homes as the elderly were mowed down by coronavirus.

John Prine highlighted society’s indifference toward the elderly in Hello In There, the plaintive plea to acknowledge that ocean of knowledge and wisdom.

At the time Homer wrote The Odyssey, and the way Indigenous still do, the old were treated with great respect, even reverence.

It is time to for us on the death track to reclaim that heritage and plant our flag on the ramparts of our own dreams and not those of society, and become who we always wanted to be.

With the duties and demands that played like the sirens’ song, we felt compelled to do society’s bidding and foundered on the rocks of out own broken dreams. “(But) 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

We could learn from James Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who taught calculus to students reputed to be difficult to teach. Under his tutelage, they blossomed. His insights are as applicable to the elderly, to any age, as they are to the troubled young.

“When you know who you are, you will have the answer to every challenge that life poses,” he said. “When you do not remember who you are, all of life is a problem.

“Close your eyes, quiet your mind and delve into your source. Deep within you is the awareness that you are a spiritual being, perfect, whole and one with the Great Mind that created you. Herein lies the source of all healing. It is the way out of your difficulty into peace.”

Actor Christopher Plummer, who recently died at 91, wrote in his memoir:

“As I creep deeper into twilight, it is not so much the fear of dying that disturbs me, but the sudden awareness that I’ve just begun to live and how dreadfully I’m going to miss it when I’m gone.”

He is now gone, but we are still here and, if we have even a sliver of wisdom, we will take his advice and that of Odysseus in the final lines of Tennyson’s poem:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Almost 3,000 years earlier, Homer put similar words in Odysseus’s mouth in The Odyssey:

“I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship, and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to bits, then will I swim.”

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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