This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.
👨🏫 Mini Essay: Our ego dies with age
📸 Visual: The Magic Box on living and love
🔍 Quote: Rabbi Zusya on being yourself
📜 Passage: Henry Thoreau on childlike joy in old age
Lately I’ve been reading about people’s experiences dealing with growing old. And there’s one theme I kept seeing: our egos dying.
When we’re young, we feel like the centre of the universe. We expect doors to open for us and to be caught when we fall.
We expect life to let us win like a big brother takes it easy on his little brother in a game.
But that’s the delusion of being young. Big bro only plays hard.
Growing up is a relentless series of rug pulls and reality checks. Life beats us up until it’s impossible to deny that we’re not special.
Parker Palmer said this on life teaching him that lesson:
“Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from some spiritual practice … It comes from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that I found myself compelled to cry uncle and say, OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.”
But luckily, that’s when life gets beautiful.
“Once I understand that I’m not the sun, I can get out of the sun’s way and stop casting shadows. I can step aside to let the true sun shine on everyone and everything, making all things ripe with the glow of life.”
Not being the sun confused me at first. How do I find meaning or make myself happy if it’s not about me?
But Jane Harrison explained those don’t come from serving yourself. They come from dedicating your life to something bigger (family, art, a mission, vocation, hobbies, careers, etc.)
Which makes sense. A life dedicated to love and ambition sounds more fun than a life dedicated to me.
Not being the centre of attention also takes the pressure away. We don’t have to worry about what results our lives produce—it’s not about us.
It’s why Palmer said, "When I die, I won't be asking about the bottom line.”
That lack of pressure comes with freedom too.
When we’re young, we’re shackled to others’ opinions. We can only go as far as is validated by the people we want to impress. So we embellish truths to appear better than we are.
But with no ego to feed, there’s no pressure to be someone we’re not.
I think it’s why elderly people appear so composed and carry themselves with grace.
It’s why I want to get old as young as possible.
In the world to come they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'
I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand.
When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather.
I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might.
It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store.
Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.
This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.
—Henry David Thoreau