“It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating to his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness” – Epicurus
I was recently turned on to a new book by fellow blogger and cyber-friend Ronni Bennett over at her Time Goes By blog. It’s a book by Daniel Klein entitled “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life” Klein is a Harvard college graduate who majored in philosophy but whose career includes scripts for TV comedy and eventually focused on writing both fiction and non-fiction books. His most popular was Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar – Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes which covers the classic categories of philosophy, with concepts explained or illustrated through humor.
In “Travels with Epicurus” Klein looks at old age as a stage in our life that should be appreciated for what it’s worth rather than something to dread. It is after all an inevitable period in our lives we are all destined to face. There is much for each reader to take away from Klein’s observations as he spends time among the inhabitants of the Greek island of Hydra to study the culture’s apparent capacity to accept old age for its benefits, not its perceived curses. Rather than view old age in and of itself as the threshold to death, the elders on this tiny Aegean landscape seem to value this time in their life that offers much more than we can attain wearing blinders during our ambitious and energetic youth.
For me, there were two themes that emerged – waiting and acceptance. Behaviors that are not only foreign to today’s youth in most cultures, but to many of those people as well who are broaching old age or who have already crossed over to the late autumn of their lives.
Old age is not something I fear but I do get anxious at the thought of living long past any state where my quality of life has pretty much vanished. There is always that dread of living too long where we become nothing more than a fixture to be endured by our family, friends or even those strangers in our lives that become our caretakers. It becomes a condition where our life has no real value if our mental and physical faculties depend largely on drugs, mechanisms and the 24-7 care of others.
It is this type of aging I dread the most, something Klein refers to as old, old age. Kept alive by a generally held sense that “only God can take a life” we are thus deprived to die with dignity and by our own choice. He notes that Aristotle once opined that “there is absolutely nothing to look forward to in old, old age”. But the right to die is a topic I have addressed already, here, here and here. This post will deal with the needless fear of growing old in a culture that wants to be “forever young” and in doing so ignores the wisdom and quality of life that allows us to treasure the last years of our life.
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. – Bertrand Russell
One of the appealing aspects I discovered in Klein’s study of the people on the Greek island of Hydra is how they are never in a hurry. In so doing they are able to see things that people in a rush often miss. A leisurely stroll around the neighborhood as opposed to jogging. Watching the play of squirrels in your backyard instead of watching squirrelly people on TV. The joy of an extended conversation with friends or just a reflective moment alone. In our contemporary society we have been geared from birth to hurry, supposedly out of some economic urgency. “Time is money” is an expression that discourages patience and if we are waiting for anything we are losing an opportunity to achieve greater material wealth. Or so our notions of life in the fast lane would have us believe.
But there is much to gain in waiting and it is only when we age that the true value of a slower life can be appreciated. Not the type of waiting a curmudgeon friend of Klein’s anticipates that waits for the diagnosis; that “day or doctor’s visit [that’s] going to deliver the news that our first major geriatric, and possibly fatal, disease has shown up.” But rather a waiting that allows all that life has to offer to imbue us and capture the awe that was once ours as a small child. I still think fondly of those times I had lying face up in my back yard on a starlit night and watching not only the unfathomable cosmos beyond our planet, but the interplay of life between musical crickets and light shows from fireflies.
When we rush we engage in unhealthy practices that obstruct a view of life that has much to offer in the nuances and minor details that surround us and that can enrich our hearts and minds. In this high-tech age we have grown too accustomed to artificial sensations that occur on our cell phones, I-pads, TVs and the big movie screen. All which tantalize our visual and auditory senses. But it is a sight and hearing that are artificially manufactured; synthesized via mechanical means not part of the natural world. A simulation if you will rather than an actualization. Missing are the full range of human senses that include touch, smell and the experience that only comes when real contact with the world occurs.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, from “Auguries of Innocence”
In waiting there is a sense of peace. One that allows us to feel in control rather than pressured to complete a task only to anticipate and begin a new one. This ideal is addressed in what Klein refers to as the “forever young” mode that many people of late middle age and early stages of old age find themselves drawn to. A kind of denial that scorns old age and places excessive value on youth. A disconnect with reality because in the final analysis, youth will escape us all. And if we are unprepared or unwilling to confront this reality then our remaining years are fraught with unnecessary worry, ruining the chances for any contentment that awaits those who will take advantage of what old age offers all of us.
In our culture that values accepting nothing less than the very best but too often takes short cuts to gain a quick fix, we often carry this over to a part of our humanity that ignores the reality that not everyone can be the most beautiful, the smartest and the richest. Surface images tend to hold greater value in such cases than what lies below them. There are millions of people who will never grace the front covers of magazines that extol success, beauty and genius. And though many of us often strive to achieve such status, there are many more who live comfortably and happy with what they have been handed.
In accepting a life that is rich with things that money, beauty and privilege overlooks, we are allowed to focus on things we really have no control over. To marvel at such things and consider their value without fear of reprisal or of failing is a great burden lifted from our shoulders. This is not to say that things that matter should not be fought for and worked towards.
There is a crucial need to make sure that rich and powerful people do not rob us of our dignity and our future with policies that only they benefit from and create undue suffering as a result. We should never be accepting of the human “collateral damage” that comes from regional and global conflicts or the ongoing destruction of our ecosystem through man-made usages of fossil fuels.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little – Epicurus
Neither should we have to buy into the crass commercialism that we’re sold by a consumer mentality about how our lives will be enhanced in a variety of ways by making purchases of manufactured goods or for-profit self-improvement services. None of this should consume us so as to obscure that part of our life we can find some measure of joy and fulfillment from. In his book, Klein reminds us that high on Epicurus’ list “of the ways we thwart happiness is by binding ourselves to the constraints of the ‘commercial world’”.
Accepting simplicity is not a practice to be ashamed of. Relieving ourselves of a drive that can never be fully satisfied is a reward we earn over time, when after having lived so long we now know better what to accept and what to reject. Accepting the necessity to slow down in all things can actually enrich our lives and brings us closer to that eternal quest that seeks the meaning of life. A meaning that sees life as a gift and not as a means to some other end. Something that relishes what it has in the here and now and eschews the fears of an uncertain tomorrow or regrets of a past that cannot be altered.
Klein depicts this notion of acceptance as he spends time with one of the old men of Hydra he has developed a friendship with, Tasso, as they celebrate an Easter dinner with Tasso’s family. Spending time in late spring, under a lemon tree with these “lively, loving people” drinking ouzo, a Greek spirit, and snacking on mezes, a cultural hor d’oeuvre, the author is reminded of William Blake’s warning “not to attempt to cling to a sublime experience, but to allow it to come and go with grace.”
He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise