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The Mortality Club

GROWING OLD: A CURSE OR A GIFT?

Mindsets toward Aging and Mortality
At today’s meeting of the Mortality Club, I would like to talk about the different attitudes or mindsets we have about growing old. Some of us, the Stargazers, would prefer to deny that they are aging. They try to surround themselves with younger people. When they look in the miror, they see their younger selves.

Confident of their own capabilities, Celebrants manifest a persistent “can do” attitudeThey are energized people who embrace each day enthusiastically. Adept at finding the silver lining in even the darkest cloud, Celebrants remain optimistic even in the face of aging. The celebrate cataract surgery because it frees us from the need to wear glasses. They call their pacemaker their buddy, and focus on it as a welcome life-saving device.

The hallmark of the Warrior is courage, or tenacity in the face of fear, and strength in the face of pain. Warriors feel empowered, in control and confident, and ready for battle. They are convinced that they will be able to meet the challenges and overcome the obstacles that are on the horizon. That includes aging. They exercise like crazy and adhere to stict diets in order to force their aging bodies to perform like they did when they were younger.

Like shipwreck survivors, Castaways expect to be thrown about or even battered by life. Aware that nature can be punishing and that every life ends in death, they anticipate misfortune. Castaways accept Buddha’s first noble truth, “Life is suffering.” They understand that aging is a curse against which they have no antidotes. They console themselves with the reminder that it is better than the alternative––dying.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look at getting old through the lens of the Sage? Sages manage to transcend the boundaries of their own ego, experiencing a sense of being connected to all other living things. Sages are resilient, and able to bounce back each time they receive disturbing news. Because of their realism, they know when it is time to surrender. Blending the best characteristis of the other mindsets, the Sage regards getting old as a gift rather than as a curse.

In the Hourglass, I introduce a spirited ninety-year old Sage named Kitty Manigan. Kitty once said to me, “Living is a complex process. Each day of life is a gift, whether that day is filled with joy or with grief. I am grateful that I have lived for as long as I have. Gratitude. That’s what I feel. And joy. I am joyous for having lived so long. I am grateful for being old.”

The notable and quotable section of the April 3rd issue of The Wall Street Journal is devoted to an ancient Sage’s perspective on growing old. A new translation by classicist Philip Freeman, “How to Grow Old” (Princeton University Press), includes an imagined dialogue involving the Roman philosopher Cato written by the orator and statesman Cicero (106-43 B.C):

Scipio: When Gaius Laelius and I are talking, Marcus Cato, we often admire your outstanding and perfect wisdom in general, but more particularly that growing old never seems a burden to you. This is quite different from the complaints of most older men, who claim that aging is a heavier load to bear than Mount Etna.

Cato: I think, my young friends, that you are admiring me for something that isn’t so difficult. Those who lack within themselves the means for a blessed and happy life will find any age painful. But for those who seek good things within themselves, nothing imposed on them by nature will seem troublesome. Growing older is a prime example of this. Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it. People can be foolish and inconsistent.

They say that old age crept up on them much faster than they ex­pected. But, first of all, who is to blame for such poor judgment? Does old age steal upon youth any faster than youth does on childhood? Would growing older really be less of a burden to them if they were approaching eight hundred rather than eighty? If old people are foolish, nothing can console them for time slipping away, no matter how long they live.


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