I find four reasons why old age appears to be unhappy: first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death. Let us, if you please, examine each of these reasons separately and see how much truth they contain.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (AKA Cicero, 106-43 B.C.) in De Senectute (On Old Age) written in 44 B.C.
I begin this post with this timeless wisdom of Cicero, who, despite this pessimistic opening of his little book called De Senectute (originally translated as On Old Age, although the newest translation of the book by Princeton University Press has renamed it to How to Grow Old, which, well, is a fair enough title), would in fact, come around to debunk the hollowness of getting old. He, at the end of the book, would remind us of the charm of getting old. One of which — spoiler alert — is that we would be free from the desire to engage in sexual activities. While many fellow Romans of Cicero thought of aging as the embarrassing end of manhood, Cicero thought of it as a gift. “Alas,” said the great man Cicero, “I could be free from the naturalistic instinct that has for many years chained me to the unproductive anxiety…and now I can be free from it to do more important things, say, thinking and writing.”
That’s just one of his “three golden teaching,” which, needless to say, resonates with me most deeply: When can I actually be free from the natural impulse to want to have sex?!?! Damn it! (For those who has been reading this blog for a while, the last installment of the On Sex Trilogy has yet to be written). We’ll come back to the other two teachings Cicero has taught us more than two millennia ago.
Cicero himself has been known more as a statement — the master of political thinking that inspired generations of philosophers especially during the Enlightenment — and less as a philosopher. But he was a philosopher. His thinking on aging is almost the same as that of Confucius who had famously written the world’s shortest but most elegant piece of autobiography:
At 15, I set my heart on learning.
At 30 I know where I stand.
At 40, I have no more doubts.
At 50, I know the will of Heaven.
At 60 my ears are attuned.
At 70, I follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line.
— Confucius, as recorded by his deciples in the Analects
So, I am going to weave my reading of Cicero with my own take on the morality of aging here. It’s going to be pretty hard for me to pinpoint which is my own thought and which is his as I think my original take on aging is quite similar to his already. The reason for which is that I have seen my father aged and I have seen how he had coped with it — both elegantly and clumsily — and I have derived my understanding of aging from such a direct, intimate, and painful experience living, for 28 years, with the man whom I loved the most. Personally, I think of aging as an absolutely exciting thing. It is the process that, while moving us closer to death, also enables us to experience our body differently. Who wouldn’t want that? — the ability to feel that a certain thing could have different sensible meanings to us every day in our life? Sounds pretty awesome, don’t you think? Do you remember when you read the same book and you find something interesting you didn’t find the first time that you read it? The same also applies to films, places, things, and etc. It’s because our body has changed, so has our mind, therefore in every thing we see we see more depths to it. I once wondered whether or not my gold fish would be so bored swimming in a small little bowl his entire life, until one day when my veterinarian friend managed to tell me that gold fish have very short memory (like, very very short) so, no, they will never get bored with anything because they’ll excited with everything they see again and again, and again. At the moment, I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be nice if we’re all like that? Then, we wouldn’t have to go out of our way, like what we’re doing every day, to make our life more exciting, more purposeful, more meaningful. We could just stay at home and wait for our memory of everything around us to be automatically refreshed every once in a while. Wallah, everything is new and exciting again! Fine. You might not be convinced by my concise propaganda here yet, so let me try again. What got me thinking about aging is a conference on eldercare in which I just participated.
Our body is changing everyday. From a physiological perspective, nothing in our body remains the same after a few weeks — in every moment of our life, all the cells renew themselves, allowing our body to be reshaped into a slightly different form. In this sense, both Lord Buddha and David Hume were right to say that there is no self. The more we try to find the essence of the self, the more we find nothing, since even the very basic underpinning of the physiological self is never in a static state that we can pin point what it is. Our body is changing stably, but it’s by no means permanent or static. Because this process of cell-changing gets repeated on a momentarily basis, we human beings, as the masters of the physiological bodies, are also being changed as well. Aging to me is an exciting process because we are living in a different body every day, and therefore this different body allows me to experience new things every day as well, even though the experience itself may not seem to be that different from what I had experienced in the past. Like I said, it could be the we’re the reading the same book, but because our body has changed, our understanding of the contents of the book has changed, and so on, every time we read the same book we often learn something new from it. In other words, we’re like the gold fish, in the sense that we actually never get to read the same book again.
The problem here is how to let our self-fulfilling bias overpower the fact that we are changing. So, for instance, how do we keep our egotistical feeling “I have read that book and therefore I don’t need to read it again — it’s always going to be the same book” at bay. What I usually do is to tell myself, “Dude, remember, since the body is changing all the time, any experience we have of anything is never the same.” Eating (and perhaps licking and messily playing with) a cone of ice cream when I was a kid kinda felt differently from eating it properly as an adult. My physical body has changed, so has my mind, and my way of thinking. Aging, therefore, gives me the sense of constant renewal of the agents that dictate my experience of the physical world and therefore my sensibility. This is precisely the reason why I don’t think getting old is a fearful thing. Every day when I get up in the morning, I feel thankful for having another day in a life. A few good friends of mine passed away prematurely; therefore, when I feel thankful for myself for having another day to age, I feel thankful for having known those who passed even though for only a short period of time. Because aging and death and related, we tend to think of aging as something we’d rather avoid thinking of it, talking about it, or even mentioning it. In fact, we sometimes ridicule those who are older than us especially when we think they could have done much more with their lives. “Look, he’s 60 and he’s still an ordinary staff of a company XX.”
I have the opposite feeling about aging, as I have laid out my argument here. Because I don’t even know whether I’d live to see myself in my 60s, I am, instead of thinking of them of being unsuccessful people, admiring them for having lived, sustained their lives, that long. Of course, I’d like to live longer than my father who passed away in his early 60s, but the only thing that I know is that there’s no way I could know what the future may bring. We are obsessed with wanting to be successful, and with the said abhorrence against aging, we tend to admire those who become so successful when they are yet to be considered old by societal standards, which, I think, also makes no sense — simply because we don’t know what the future may bring. Society always pushes us against our will. For instance, I have been ridiculed by many for having spent so many years in school and still don’t have a proper career, or a stable (married) life. People compare me to younger social scientists who are much more successful than I am at my current age.
All I have to say is that, I can only agree that people who know what they want early on in their lives therefore don’t have to waste a lot of time figuring out the best path to walk on are admirable — they are lucky beings, unlike myself, who have taken so many detours in life simply because I didn’t have the privilege to get access to the information that would have allowed me to know much early on in life about what I really want and what really matters. A wonderful colleague of mine had worked very hard his entire childhood, precisely to be respected and admired for having done and succeeded so much at such a young age, and then he died prematurely by a tragic traffic accident. I don’t think he regretted that which very much because he was, indeed, a successful person, but as I know him personally to be a family man, I have a feeling that if he could he would have traded his short successful life, with a longer simply and meaningful life with his family.
By this, I also don’t think that “looking old” should be something to be ashamed of. Here’s when the second teaching of Cicero may add some depths to my argument. He said that getting old — and looking old — reminds us of our responsibility to give our attention to something beyond just the body. A much greater care is due to the mind and soul. It is the time when how you look may no longer attract the wrong kinds of people to your life. Your attraction and your contribution will solely be your mind and soul, and that which, though may not be as appealing at first, is what Cicero believes to be the truest reward one could get in life. I like telling people how old I am. I like to admit that I may look older than my actual age, even though I am skeptic about these kinds of aesthetic standards. Who has the right to say that this or that person look older or younger than his or her counterparts anyway? Whoever would like to make a comment like that must be, at least, sort of certain that he or she has seen a large number of people — large enough to make a judgement call whether a person looks older or younger than his/her peers. In my life, I have not seen someone who could sensibly make that call — simply because there are too many people in the world for anyone to be able to make an informed generalization about how one should look at a certain age. In addition, why does it even matter? In line with my post two days ago, I believe that it doesn’t matter how old a person may look, as long as he or she is healthy. The healthiness from within is gold. So, I both condemn and abhor people who do not feel the sense of absurdity when they make senseless comments like, “you look so old,” or “I look younger than you” for the said reasons. I believe that I have learned this very aesthetics of aging from my father, who never dyed his hair in his entire life no matter how grey it looked. My father was always proud of how mature of looked, and how graceful, as a mature man, he was. I had to agree. When I was young, I often made fun of my father (well, I could, since we’re close but most people thought of my father as a scary person of whom they would never dare of making fun) by saying that his face was full of wrinkles. To my surprise, he always smiled when he heard me said so. I never quite understood because whenever I said that kind of things to anyone else, often they looked with me unpleasingly (surprise, surprise). Quite the opposite, he always liked the way he looked. He, more than anything else, loved the unretouched photos of himself, and enjoyed comparing his photos taken years apart. Not only was he not unhappy to look old, but he was proud of being old. Only until he passed that I gradually realized that he was using his life to teach my the beauty of growing old, becoming mature, and aging. So, I am turning 34 in a few days, and I want to live as long as I could live in a healthy body. With the healthy body, I could think maturely, and age beautifully.
I always think that people who are always worried about how they look are people who never lose someone they truly love. When you have lost someone that important to you, you will change — you will become much more sensitive to what really matters to you, and not superficial things such as how they look. 10 out of 10 people who have made comments about how old other people look (or how young they think they look) that I met still have their parents living in the world with them. Because they have never lost someone they unconditionally love (assuming that it’s their parents), they could only think about the world in a limited way — like the hunchbacks in Plato’s cave. My father was only in his early 60s when he passed away. He wasn’t that old, and I never thought he looked that old. I, at least, want to live as long as he did, and have a life as meaningful as his.
I like that when we become old our body also change to represent the fact that we become wiser, more mature, and more experienced. I always admire people who age beautifully. The first time I heard about the ancient Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi, which literally means “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” I thought to myself that was it — that’s my philosophy. I was 18 at the time and in on way I thought of myself then as less than a “perfect human being.” I was immature, hot-tempered, and egotistical — these were the factors that made me think that I was a perfect human being. I was not. I was not even close to even being one-tenth perfect as a student, let alone as a human being. All I could say is that I was a young man (kind of good-looking as well) with a rather successful academic life (as an undergraduate at a technical college in Thailand). Like many immature people, I was proud of how young I looked, and I went around ridiculing sad people for their old-looking faces and bodies, as well as their unsuccessful lives. It may sound strange that I would be bought into this philosophy that celebrates cracks on the vest, wrinkles on the face, signs of worn clothes, defections on the wooden surface, dent at a corner at a laptop, and so on.
The moment I discovered wabi-sabi, I became a changed man. This philosophy appreciates marks that time, space, experience, and weather leave behind. Unlike many, I actually like the worn marks on my smartphone, because when I look at it I’d know exactly what had happened to it, what happened when those mark appeared on the surface of my smartphone, and “who was I” when that happened. Of course, as a self-proclaimed Ruskinian Art and Craft connoisseur, I appreciate the art and craft of every object, so I wouldn’t no out of my way to create marks on my object intentionally just to make them look worn and therefore wabi-sabi oriented. In fact, that would defeat the whole purpose of such profound philosophy (so, I almost punched a man who stupidly challenged me with his mindless brain, “why don’t you throw your phone a few more times onto the ground then, so that it would look more wabi-sabily cracked”). I appreciate things the way they are, and enjoy them equally when they get old. Wabi-sabi celebrates the raw beauty of Gandalf The Gray, rather than the significantly more powerful and eye-pleasing Gandalf The White. As an architect, I appreciate how wabi-sabi teaches me to appreciate the elegance of an aging building in a natural landscape. The third teaching of Cicero about aging is that age is not a barrier to remaining engaged with life. Like Gandalf The White, and like many intellectuals whom we all admire, being free from the burden to “look good” through the spectacles and to be “sexually active” just to fulfill the bodily desire that you simply cannot have any control over, we shall have more time to be intellectually, physically, and socially engaged with the community of true friends. When Confucius said that “at 70, I follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line,” what he meant was that he had arrived at the stage where he could truly be himself. Yes, he might not have a lot time left to enjoy as people during his time did not get to live very long, but life, to him, was never about quantity but quality. Wouldn’t you say that a year of blissful travel is more meaningful than a decade-long of repetitive, tedious, and alienating work for which you have nothing to remember?
An old body, at the same time, expresses attributes related to the sense of decay, fatigue, and mortality — all of which are both unavoidable, and should not be avoided. We should welcome them with open arms. In fact, I like my photos that show the wrinkles on my face — they are the signs of my experienced life, and they’re the marks of my spent living sensibilities.
I will look older every day, but that’s exciting, and all I hope for is that I age beautifully as well — meaning that I will look older and older with more and more wrinkles that are expressive of who I am and what I do. I am a naturalist in the sense and I am very proud of it. People in today’s world are obsessed with looking young which, as I also criticized in my last post, is something I categorically abhor since it is also deeply superficial. I think it’s a true waste of time to try to photoshop your photos so that you’d look younger to other people’s eyes.
Let’s get back to who we are, let’s wabi-sabi, and let’s remove all of the superficial facades from our lives.