What is reality? Way too big and mysterious a question so I’ll try this one: What is real within the bounds of life as I know or imagine it? In a sense, this is the unspoken question behind most of the choices we make over the course of our lives and is especially prominent, though hidden, within the big ones. It seems to me that the assemblage of our responses is how we build character and find value, for the realities sought are those constitutive of making a purposeful life. The work I’ve chosen, the wives I’ve had, the places and people I’ve loved, the ways I’ve focused my personal or solitary time…all reveal what I have considered most real, meaning: most essential (as opposed to inessential or trivial), most meaningful, most consistent with how I envision my self within the greater Self of existence as I experience and imagine it. The most distinctive exemplars of those who seek the true fullness of reality are found among sages and mystics, but they are not as common as they once were, and I can only aspire.
It has seemed to me as an elder that the reality questions come with different aspects and different gravities than they did during earlier periods. Setting off on a career or marriage at 25 is clearly major but not necessarily final. Mistakes can be corrected. Starting over is always possible. (I’ve had two or three careers, depending on how you define them and two marriages, not counting one that was early, immature, and brief.) But now the plenitude of time that was once assumed has transmuted into a state where the terminal boundary hovers on the horizon, no longer mirage but definitude, with date perhaps set and certainly anticipated but not showing on my calendar. I have moved into the period that the philosophical study and reflection on death as existential condition that began in my thirties has prepared me for. Which is vital to recollect but not what I’m thinking about right now. Practical matters still make demands. “Last chances” require consideration. Decisions feel closer to final.
For instance, if it continues to become ever more evident that the United States is neither united nor a viable nation but rather a house that was built on sand—rich and powerful but internally decadent, bigoted, violent, hyper-materialistic, undemocratic, and sunk into egoistic individualism at the cost of solidarity—ought I not to expatriate rather than feel myself complicit by my presence in all this? Could I live with the losses? Would it be worth the wrenching changes? In this as in so much more, margins of error have shrunk, choices become more final. And this one, decisively, was not one I would ever have imagined considering.
Then this one: Where do I draw the line on allowing myself, with whatever health-related maladies arise, to move into a medicalized state of being? I watched my parents, who died in their nineties, spend their last fifteen or so years engulfed in medical appointments, hospitalizations, rehab, home health care, copious pharmaceutical inputs, and worst of all the sense of themselves as dependent creatures of the medical industry. There were many times I was sure they should have been told there was nothing more to offer for this or that problem or pain but were instead sent to another specialist (passing the bucks, so to speak) or tried on another pill or another procedure. Not a good way to live and certainly less so as a way to prepare for dying.
My philosophical/spiritual preparation for death is well on its way, but before the ultimate need for it arises I ask to what extent I should submit to the regimens of medicalization? How much medical misery might a few more months or even year or two be worth if spent largely perambulating between treatment centers and in persistent pain or discomfort and inexorable decline? My first appointment with a cardiologist for evaluation of atrial fibrillation, diagnosed by my general practitioner, I left with prescriptions for four medications, none of which I was willing to take. But as the risk factors mount up—blood pressure, cardiac deficiencies, all those mysterious readings from blood draws, aging (a risk factor all by itself regardless of who is doing it and what his condition, something hard to encompass at first and then I remembered that we are all built for obsolescence)—when does wisdom intervene on behalf of evaluations and treatment despite my aversion vs. wanting a clear picture of my condition even if most likely to refuse treatment?
Then there are the more mundane questings. As a younger man still interested in friendly smiles and other affirmations from women whom I considered attractive, I was never sure how I appeared to them. Sometimes I thought desirable, and others not in the least, so I stumbled along in ignorance but doing okay. Now the interest has declined, but I doubt will ever disappear, and my perplexity is all the greater. Just how old, how decrepitly ancient and wizened, do I look? Were I playing the field, I’d be a mass of uncertainties. A brief look in the mirror and I see the face of myself 30-40 years ago, but closer scrutiny and especially the testimony of pictures taken back then placed alongside those closer to now remove all doubt—I have changed and not for the better. But how bad is it? I can never decide, but might lean toward despair if I were not sufficiently detached and if the yearning had not diminished as it has (an expression of which comes from one of Leonard Cohen’s final songs before dying when he said he didn’t need a lover because “the wretched beast is tamed”: older men, I think, usually experience this but tamed comes in degrees).
I think the chief reality issue for elders is one that is always with us even if not so much attended to in younger days: contingency and its unpredictable incursions. Humans are spindly creatures with vulnerable foundations and always subject to falls, metaphoric and actual. Once it was only a matter of jumping back up and hoping no one saw me; falls are invariably humiliating. Is there something metaphysically symbolic about them? For me now a fall carries more risks than merely to pride and the return to verticality more of a challenge. This is all obvious. The important issue, here and about the state of our elder body in toto, is how we distribute our attention. I want to be alert without excess and most of all not to become so over-attentive that every twinge sets off concern. As we obsolesce, it seems that twinges multiply and could easily become preoccupying. One cardiologist told me that he had patients with A-fib who were so anxious about the symptomatic arrhythmia and occasions of heart rate fluctuations that they would barely leave their beds. (It’s time for such people, I would say, to do serious work on their attitude toward dying and learn acceptance, and then get up and on with life.)
As I said at the beginning, I am camped in the mountains, about 6,000’ elevation. I’ve learned a formula for dealing with the breathlessness of climbing brought on by my altered circumstances: aging + A-fib + elevation = I’d better have sufficient time on this trip for physically adjusting to the variables before I begin a climb. When I forget, as I did a few days ago, I’m reminded, while feeling almost bad enough to want to join that fellow who never left his bed. I offer this anecdote to suggest one of the forms of consciousness that elders can adopt and do things that are important to them.
A philosopher whom I admire and who advised me on my doctoral dissertation once wrote a paper that I still have 30+ years later. Even as a relative youngster I knew it contained wisdom I would someday return to. She described what happens with the body in aging; she called it a “subject body,” which meant it can take on a life of its own seemingly separate from you the inhabitant, you the consciousness, and will demand attention and accommodations. Which is inevitable, but how we attend and accommodate are crucial. One does not want to move toward hypochondriasis or psychosomatism or even preoccupation; tranquil alertness might be the ideal, with emphasis on tranquility. We should be satisfied to die at any moment while remembering that death is not on every moment’s program; most of the subject body’s grumblings are explicable and survivable, so relax, which is far easier to do if step one of this sentence has been attended to.
One of the difficult challenges for me as I entered into this territory was how to interpret the changes. If I see I have slowed on my hike is that because I am now older, or neglected my conditioning, or having a bad day, or just being more anxious? If I can’t think of the word I want to express myself, what does it say about the state of my aging mind? The same with declining memory. I know that the state of my attentiveness and concentration are essential to psychological and spiritual functioning, but they can become distorted (think again of that person captive to his bed) and lose their greatest value as they are turned to neurosis. As much as possible I avoid interpretive scrutiny of changes and just make note and go on.
But it is not the physical aspect of elderhood that most interests me, even if it can be, with the right attitude, the source of great humor from time to time. A serious clown, gloomy trickster, neurotic and ready to completely take over the show if allowed to—give the body a foot and it will try to take a mile. Nonetheless, it can be understood and remain the friend it always has been despite its recent tendencies to whine.
It’s the consciousness, the mind, that makes or breaks the elder. Eudemonic aging, as I will call it, incorporates many virtues. Spiritual awareness is a part, as is acceptance of the transience of all things (except perhaps the Cosmos, always changing but enduring). Unending curiosity: What is this world really about? Why did humans squander the great gifts of their birth and come to create the present morass of unhappiness and delusion? At what point in our quarter million years of evolution did we make the fateful turn? Look at all that’s happening and try as objectively as you can to picture where it will go and how it will end. Better than that—you have your presence in Nature, its direct experience, and spending time with the many good books that are revealing how sentient and intentional are our fellows the plants and animals and fungi. Cultivate equanimity: the attitude of an interested spectator. And gratitude.
A few years ago I had an endoscopy and vowed going in, as an experiment on what the dying light of my life might eventually be like, to pay close attention to my mind as the anesthesia did its work. I thought the transition from conscious to not might be a foretaste, a model, but it didn’t work. At least it didn’t if the reports from those who’ve had near-death experiences are credible, which they are to me—not in the sense that what they say happened literally did but that the emotional/spiritual tone and course of the process that led toward but did not arrive at death sounds intuitively right. Serene and accepting, we know the sun is setting for our last time. Followed, in my estimation, by dissolution, my personal completion as my non-self particles merge into new life forms. But on the table, with the anesthesia flowing in, I drew a blank. I could never recollect any aspect of the transition; a switch flipped and I was gone. I was glad to have made the effort. It satisfied a piece of my curiosity.
Spirit, acceptance, curiosity, and beyond acceptance an affirmative belief in the rightness of death, mine included. I think that one of the reasons humans have created the morass I mentioned above lies in our species movement toward feeling ourselves separate from Nature, as if we were beings different and superior to all other forms of life. We self-alienated from our source and chose in lieu of reverential engagement and gratitude to make resources of everything resourceable, to commodify creation and not with a gentle touch. We orphaned ourselves at the price of our wholeness and the spirituality known in the communion of existence. Alienation makes death fearsome. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sounds one way at someone else’s funeral, but for the fearful it’s not terribly reassuring when anticipating his own. It should be. I’m in no rush to join the soil but I find the picture of it, when my time comes, exhilarating in a way. My recompense offered for the gifts I received, my fulfillment of the contract implicit in coming-to- be.
Degree of alienation is probably the central determiner of how well a life goes. If, as has been said and I believe, we die in the manner we have lived—that living is in part preparation for dying—then one’s end time will vary with his alienation: from himself in his potential integrity, from other people and Nature, from his possible experience of the ultimate, the absolute, the pervading spirit of existence. The question I asked about reality? As we reach union, experience solidarity, know the taste of what the wisest seekers of all philosophies and religions have sought—tending to the soul, as Socrates put it—we move past alienation, which I think might be an elder’s greatest insight.