The Wisdom of Aging

I have been looking through the essays I’ve written during the last five months and have noticed how many of them talk about letting go of many of the activities, thoughts, and feelings that have sustained me through my life.

There are actually three, complementary themes that jump out.  In some, I feel abandoned—by physical strength or memory, for instance.  In others, I am letting go.  Here I think of my efforts at fame and fortune and my desire to be more than I actually am.  Still others feel active, as though I am saying farewell.  I have, for example, retired.  And I have divested myself of many possessions.

I have been studying the wisdom traditions, both East and West, throughout my adult life.  The experience is often similar to what I feel when I read popular books on quantum theory and the bending of time.  While I’m reading, I think I understand.  When I’m done and try to explain what I’ve learned, my understanding has fled.  But the idea of wisdom continues its allure, and some of my late life experience seems to lend itself, at least a little bit, towards better understanding.

The marriage of age and wisdom is an ancient one.  It applies best to traditional and stable cultures, where the known world is available to the observant person, and not changed annually by new technologies.  In the known worlds, observation leads to knowledge.  Knowledge is tested and forged in fires of experience.  Reflecting upon that experience then leads to good judgment; and the repeated experience of good judgment leads to both confidence and a calm disposition. When sound judgment is shared calmly with others, and not imposed, word spreads.  A wise man or woman is in our midst.  This is the ancient pathway.

In spiritual traditions, judgment based on knowledge may not be enough.  There is a paradoxical passage to be navigated.  Even as you accumulate knowledge, you must let it go in order to see through conventional knowledge—and to see freshly into the unknown.  The Christian tradition, for instance, tells us that “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew).  Buddhist and Hindu practices teach us how to let go of our illusions and our attachments in order to be free.  Liturgy and ritual are in the service of their opposite: the unknown.

This is the aim of meditation, maybe the primary discipline, even primary teacher, in many spiritual traditions.  In meditation we learn to see a tired and futile old solution to problems we have faced many times and, instead of grabbing onto it, we let it flow by.  When we hold on to what we know, it eventually weighs us down and blinds us to what is right in front of us.  By letting go of conventional wisdom, we are unmoored, which can be frightening, but we are also liberated to experience the world as if for the first time.  The experience is simple, spontaneous, visceral, and very satisfying.

Once free, you can bring back a good deal of the knowledge and good judgment that you had attained through study and experience.  Much of it will remain pertinent—but fresher, more immediate, more specific to each new situation.  Specificity and immediacy are what change.  You no longer apply knowledge with the broad strokes that had rendered your judgment, however correct, so uninspiring.  The inspiration of the child is in the sense of wonder.  Each moment is special.  With time, wonder and knowledge join. The marriage is joyous.  The present moment—discovery—and the ages are bonded as one.

The search for wisdom is often puzzling and daunting.  Among other things, it requires sacrifice: you must learn to let go the very knowledge that you have depended on, the precious knowledge that has given you a sense of security and status in your community.  In our fast-changing world, wisdom-as-knowledge is ephemeral.  The capacity to let it go over and over again becomes the key to clear sightedness.  And clear sightedness is true wisdom.  It permits you to address each moment, each challenge, each problem without the baggage of failed solutions.

Contemporary society confronts us not with stability but constant change.  Within that change, though, we also build a body of knowledge, some having to do with the nature of change and how best to cope with it.  But, ironically, on an individual level, this body of knowledge generally becomes almost as fixed as it was in traditional societies.  Those in search of wisdom pass through a comparable development: from observation and experience to knowledge and good judgment, from judgment to calm.  For those who wish to go further, the process of letting go of the certainty and woodenness of the knowledge they have attained, letting go remains the key to clarity.

Let me step back from these philosophical ruminations and say a little bit about how they apply to my life—and maybe to yours.  Remember, there were three related experiences that seem increasingly prominent: abandonment; letting go; farewell.

Abandonment means loss.  But it means more than loss.  It’s as though someone is actively leaving you or taking something away.  I don’t experience the loss of youth as voluntary.  It feels like it has fled while I slept.  The same is true for my belief, my dependence on the future as a balm that heals all ills.  Since I was a child, raised by parents who envisioned a better world, I have trusted the future.  Throughout my life, when I failed, struggled, or didn’t live up to expectations, I always believed that I could correct mistakes and improve conditions in the future. Now that I am much older, the future is no longer my friend and savior.  It has abandoned me. There’s only the present.

Letting go has a much more positive connotation for me.  It is active.  It feels purposeful.  For instance, I have begun to let go of my wish, my need, to be extraordinary.  I no longer expect that of myself, and I have plenty of evidence over a long life to confirm the humility that has finally emerged with age.  This humbling turns out to be restful.  I’m judging myself less, pushing less, failing less.  No doubt it also eases my relations with others.

Farewell is more active, still.  I have waved goodbye to my long and generally satisfying professional life.  My work was more than work for me.  It was defining.  It was a good part of who I was.  Saying farewell feels like leaving a friend, a family member.  It also means the end of “earning a living” and all that that connotes, especially for a man of my generation.  After long thought, I have said my goodbyes to people, projects, and lingering ambitions.  I have divested myself of many, many material objects, including the home where Franny and I raised our children, thousands of my beloved books, and much of the income I used to think we needed.

For a couple of years leading up to retirement, I was frightened by the yawning chasm that seemed to be on the other side.  But, with time, I began to feel that there was some other, great phase of life that I wanted to give myself to.  A time to explore my place on earth, the meaning of my life.

This brings me back to the theme of wisdom.  I don’t expect to achieve wisdom, certainly not as a steady state, a dependable calm, far above the concerns and slights of everyday life.  But I hope to touch its shores.  I think I know the secret sauce, too.  It has to do with saying farewell to being more—more charming, more intelligent, more lovable, more successful—more than myself.  More than my self.  It is time to find the freedom in just being who I am in a universe I do not control.

 

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On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.