This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.
Thinking of old age used to scare me. I saw it only as a time that threatened everything I love.
But then I read peoples beautiful experience’s with it and started feeling jealous.
Now I want to be old as young as possible.
Oliver Sacks illustrated how time brings freedom and delight. After decades, you become a master of living.
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.
One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty.
At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
And once you know how the game is played, you don’t want to stop playing. But you realize you can’t play forever.
Because, as Andre Gide experienced, your mastery of life is reciprocated by your inability to take advantage of it.
The thought of death pursues me with a strange insistence. Every time I make a gesture, I calculate: how many times already? I compute: how many times more? and full of despair, I feel the turn of the year rushing toward me. And as I measure how the water is withdrawing around me, my thirst increases and I feel younger in proportion to the little time that remains to me to feel it.
That’s the consolation prize of life—it gets richer with age.
But is it a cruel paradox or a heartening comfort that the closer we inch to death, the fuller of life’s beauty and truth we become?
As Florida Scott-Maxwell realized, old age is a beautiful time where your diminishing physical abilities show you that simple things are worth living for.
The woman who has a gift for old age is the woman who delights in comfort. If warmth is known as the blessing it is, if your bed, your bath, your best-liked food and drink are regarded as fresh delights, then you know how to thrive when old.
If you get the things you like on the simplest possible terms, serve yourself lightly, efficiently and calmly, all is almost well. If you are truly calm you stand a chance of surviving much, but calmness is intermittent with me.
Sensuous pleasure seems necessary to old age as intellectual pleasure palls a little. At times music justifies living, but mere volume of sound can overwhelm, and I find silence exquisite.
—Florida Scott Maxwell
Because, like Henry Miller describes, with time, the simplest things become miracles.
If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power.
If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” …
If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.