Thursday 25 April 2019

What is the purpose of Old Age? A Romantic Christian answer

Since retiring from my job I have been revisiting the important topic of Old Age - which is of core importance in the oldest society the world has ever known. The median age of native populations in developed nations is in the middle forties and increasing: half the population are late middle-aged or older.

As I have often said, the best that modern society has to say about an old person is that they look and behave as if they were young. There is literally nothing positive to be said about the inescapable biological fact of growing old, by the hedonic and materialist standards of modernity.

Since ageing is entirely A Bad Thing; the modern strategy is to delay ageing at the level of public appearance, and to deny ageing at the level of self-knowledge. This is, for many people, a moral imperative - and I have heard venomous comments directed against those who 'failed' to 'make the best of themselves', who 'let themselves go': who revealed and acknowledged the fact of their ageing.

(When you are maintaining a self-delusion, awareness of others who contradict it can be experienced almost as a personal attack.)

This is understandable and inevitable given that - if the world really was as mainstream materialism depicts it to be - then there really is no function to ageing. It really is a wholly Bad Thing; and therefore delaying its appearance, and keeping it out of awareness, would be a rational strategy.

But if we try to understand ageing from a Romantic Christian perspective, then we start by assuming that ageing is not purely a disease but instead has a purpose and meaning; and that this purpose-meaning is tailored to the needs of the specific situation of a specific individual.

Thus each of us has a personal destiny which does not necessarily conform to general categories - nonetheless, the purpose can hardly be to try and pretend that ageing is not real, or makes no difference.

The positive value of ageing in general should be pretty obvious to a Romantic Christian, and that is that old age is a primarily spiritual time, during which the proximity to death ought to induce an increasingly next-worldly perspective and attitude.

The many difficulties of ageing are related to this - they are not merely supposed to be regarded as patholgies to be fought and (hopefully) overcome; but should be regarded as potentially valuable experiences from which we are supposed to learn.

So long as we are yet alive, so long we still have important things to learn - and that is the same in old age as any other phase of life - but perhaps the urgency and importance are even greater.

Any old person has therefore at least one extremely important task yet to accomplish, which is why he remains alive.

(Probably, this task is extremely obvious, yet being ignored.)

The take home message is that life is not over in old age, the stakes are indeed higher than ever.

The common attitude of trying to 'stay young' and trying not to think about approaching the portal of death and entering the life to come thereafter, is therefore a bad strategy for accomplishing what most needs doing.


Anonymous said...

"... the proximity to death ought to induce an increasingly next-worldly perspective and attitude."

In the U.S. we call the tendancy for older/retired people to get religious "cram (-ming) for the final exam."

-B. S. Linger

Bruce Charlton said...

@Books - Well, cramming would be exactly the wrong things to do, not least because there is no 'exam'!

If people have already chosen the dark side and damnation, then any cramming will harden the error, and make matters worse.

The elderly need to discard (in their hearts) the idea that life is about 'activity' - indeed the situation of old age often compels inactivity, to varying degrees.

The main thing to do with 'inactivity' (negatively conceptualised) - or in a life built-around thought and meditation (positively conceptualised) is to discover the spiritual task (at least one of them) that we have, as yet, not even begun to tackle.

And that is done by simple intuitive 'noticing' rather than by study-like activities - frantic, focused and systematic.

William Wildblood said...

I like the idea of the 4 stages of life as understood in traditional Hinduism. They are the student until age 24, the married householder until around 50 then retirement and gradual withdrawal from the world as one changes focus from the things of this world to those of the next, until finally one reaches sanyasa or renunciation when one becomes wholly dedicated to the spiritual life. This last stage can be entered at any time by those who feel so called but is enjoined on everyone at the end of their days.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - There is wisdom in some of these ancient classifications; but they are essentially external and crudely categorical... modern people don't and won't believe that such schemes apply to themselves. Nowadays, we need to discover our personal task for ourselves, from our own experiences. But the old schemes can tell us 'where to look'.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I'm not saying it should be applied literally to everyone. I personally went from 1 to 4 and am now back at 2 with a touch of 3! But as a general pattern it has much to recommend it.