“There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.”
— from Plato’s The Republic
The notion that we may achieve wisdom as we age is comforting. Throughout history, many cultures have revered the elderly for this very quality: wisdom born of experience. It’s nice work, if you can get it!
In the 1940’s, psychologist Erik Erikson described the period from about age 65 to death as the time we negotiate our path through the conflict between integrity and despair. We reflect back on our lives and begin to confront our mortality. He defined success as reaching the conclusion that your life was meaningful, and then facing death with wisdom and integrity.
But there has also been recognition through the ages of the other path we might follow.
In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras posited that the decay of the mind and body began in one’s 60s and in one’s 80s the tendency was to revert to the mental capacity of a child.
The physician Galen, in the 2nd century, attributed dementia to the presence of too much black bile.
Quite the choice: being revered vs. being diapered; wisdom vs. black bile.
It’s quite the paradox: just as our lifetime of experiences grants us wisdom, aging can rob us of the memories and faculties upon which it is built.
When I was in my 20s (long before I learned about Erikson’s work), I set a standard for myself that was similar to his criterion. I decided that when I was on my deathbed, I wanted to be able to look back on my life and say, “I dug what I did while I was doing it.”
I’m not yet on my deathbed, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m pleased with my performance so far. I have very few regrets.
Have my various careers elevated me to the ranks of those with wisdom? I don’t know. By virtue of having lived this long, I have a lot of stuff stored in my head. Am I able to integrate it, manipulate it, and present polished pearls of wisdom on demand? That’s a pretty tall order. I’d like to think, though, that I have a unique and helpful perspective to offer. If that passes for wisdom, then so be it.
When Erikson penned his theory, we retired at 65 and our life expectancy was in the early 70s. Today, many of us are working well past 65, and even if we have retired, our lives are full and enriched by our volunteer engagements, travel, family and community involvements. Life expectancy in the United States is now 79. It’s becoming more common to read obituaries of centenarians. When I read about someone who passed while in their 70s, I hear myself lamenting, “So young!”
So now I’m 70 and not yet focusing on end-of-life issues. Instead, I’m embarking on a new career as a blogger. I can still express myself pretty well…and people still laugh at most of my jokes!
But how long will I occupy this state of grace? With aging–whether normal or pathological–I’m losing access to my database. My abilities to think things through and connect previously unconnected dots are slowing down. How long before listeners stop listening with interest and start finishing my sentences for me? How long before the black bile makes its presence felt? How long before Plato would not consider me a worthy traveller?
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