On Ageing

I go to the barbershop. My sparse hair still grows, albeit more slowly these days, and perversely the less of it I have the shorter I like it cut. The barber knocks off a few wisps here and shortens a few odd strands there. Finally he is done and I shake off the smock he has enveloped me in and restoring my glasses I go to pay my bill. “Is sir a pensioner?” he politely asks. I assure him I am not and then because of my honesty have to pay a substantial fee for a few minutes work.

As I walk home, I ruminate over the fact that many of my friends and relatives are pensioners. It doesn’t rankle me that they get discounts at the barber. Barbers have to earn a living and it’s good to see our society can give concessions to those who have ceased working. I like to continue to work and be useful to some degree as well. And to tell the truth the barber’s hourly rate is probably more reasonable than mine!

I enjoy the walk home, but the muscle in my groin is still a little sore from this morning’s jog. The doctor said I should give up jogging because it was too damaging on my joints and muscles. I tried walking for eighteen months or so, but it was pretty boring. When you’ve exercised properly, really exercised, you huff and puff and you sweat. Walking couldn’t do that for me, so I’m easing back into a light jogging routine. When I walked I came home just with the notion that it was done. Program completed; kilometres finished – but not very satisfying. It doesn’t really seem exercise without the pulse racing a bit and finishing somewhat out of breath. And then the joy of relaxing to restore tired limbs. When I had that sort of experience at least it felt as if I had accomplished something! It doesn’t matter that everyone who runs in my neighbourhood, young and old alike, don’t seem to have much problem passing me!

After exercising, I sit back in the old lounge chair in my office and meditate a while after my geriatric jog. I like to cool off a bit before I shower. I should be honest now, and candidly admit that as the years go by how my attempts at meditation seem more often to resolve into naps!

And then the nights! I sleep easily and well. Consequently this regular urge to have to get out of bed and urinate, and thus disturb my soporific slumber, is such a nuisance. Or in the morning I kneel down to pull a few weeds out of my garden and then it becomes a struggle just to stand up again!

Is it just me or is it a fact that the shop assistants and “check-out chicks” looking up at my sparse grey hair seem so frequently now in a patronising way to call me “Luv”. And so we have all these symptoms of ageing that are problematic.

That wonderful “Goon Show” participant and quite respectable Welsh tenor, Harry Secombe, used to sing a song about the fact that the “Best is yet to be”. That resonates with me. I have led a very fortunate life measured by most conventional criteria. Yet I am sure there is more to do. I have still in front of me many useful and interesting things to do. Fortunately they don’t rely on the robustness of my back nor my general physical fitness. At every juncture when I had to cease doing something the opportunities to do other interesting and useful things arose immediately.

So, I have told you about all the disadvantages of growing old. Perhaps I should redress the balance of things and tell you of the advantages.

Firstly, I think I understand the world better. And don’t ask me to explain. My understanding seems to be more an intuitive thing than anything else. Then, perhaps even more importantly, I understand myself better. My good friend Phil Harker always says that the path to psychological maturity is first to know yourself, then to accept yourself and then to forget yourself. I don’t know about the latter activities but I am sure I have come to know myself very well! I am comfortable in my own skin. Of course there are things I could do better. Of course I have weaknesses and deficiencies. But I am what I am. And given my biological history and my socialisation, then I probably couldn’t have been otherwise.

But what a fortunate life I’ve had. There have been many challenges and some successes. And on the way I have come to know some marvellous people and shared so joyously in their triumphs. And when I have experienced difficulty, which has recently been the case, how rewarding to have such personal support and love.

So then the physical problems of ageing seem to me more than compensated by the spiritual benefits of a life that continues to help somewhat in improving the lot of people. (It is interesting that the Dalai Llama says, “If you want to make others happy, be altruistic. If you want to be happy, be altruistic.”) I complain about the physical symptoms of ageing and yet I believe I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

Who cares what I look like! My balding pate and my expanding stomach are not of any great concern to me. And what if I can’t run as fast as I did? I am stimulated and enervated every month by the people I coach. They probably don’t appreciate how much they give to me. (Conventionally it is assumed the benefits go the other way!)

And then there are mature and gratifying relationships, not only of your friends but of your adult children – not to mention the joy of grandchildren!

When I sometimes bemoan the problems of increasing age I am reminded of the injunctions of Gordon Livingstone (“Never Stop Dancing”).

This is what he advised for those of us growing older:

1. Stop complaining. A couple of generations earlier, you would have been dead for ten years.
2. If you don’t have any activity in your life that causes you to lose track of time, you need to find something.
3. If you go to the doctor more than ten times per year and don’t have a terminal illness, get a new hobby.
4. It’s true that they haven’t written any good music for thirty years. Neither your children nor your grandchildren want to hear about it!
5. If anyone wants to know what life was like when you were their age, they’ll ask.
6. Don’t worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older it will avoid you.
7. Never mind dying with dignity; try living with dignity.

Now there’s some very good advice.

But I found that I couldn’t write a piece on ageing without quoting Tennyson. In his poem, “Ulysses” this is what he wrote:
“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Now that’s an ethos for those of us who are ageing! We may not be that “strength that in old days moved earth and heaven” but there is no reason why in the latter years of our lives we can’t still do significant things.

5 Replies to “On Ageing”

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs since getting home from Australia Ted. Thanks for them. Your theme of the interconnectedness of all things is one that any African would immediately endorse. The central notion of the world-views of most, if not all, sub-Saharan traditional cultures is (in the Zulu language of my own area) Ubuntu, or inherent togetherness, often expressed as “We can only thrive in and through one another.” In the Shona language of Zimbabwe it is called Ukama and extends the notion of togetherness to nature as well as people.

    So your warnings about nationalism, which separates and often alienates, are timely indeed. I’d be interested in your view of a something I’ve been arguing for, that we all need a dual sense of identity – these deriving from the culture we were raised in, and, as something deeper and richer, a sense of us all being Earthlings as are primary identity. (I can’t find a single, neat word to express the sense of us all being, first and foremost, cosmic citizens, so I’ve settled for now for Earthling.)

    One of our top scientists in South Africa, the palaeontologist Philip Tobias, strongly endorses your point about altruism/compassion as an evolutionary force.

    One minor final point: the archive of reports of spiritual experiences at Oxford was collected, I think, by zoologist Aister Hardy and carried his name. Has it been changed to Oliver Hardy?

  2. Martin, great to hear from you and I am pleased you are enjoying my blogs.

    It is nice to know that “All is One” is echoed through traditional African cultures as well.

    Whilst I like the idea of grounding us all in our commonality, it seems to me that our consciousness is what connects us. If for example we were to discover conscious individuals that had evolved elsewhere in the universe might not “Earthlingship” recreate the same problems that nationality does on earth?

    You know millenia ago the hymns of the Rig Veda established the concepts of Brahman (Universal Spirit) and Atman which was the individual soul (yet still part of Brahman). It is a nice notion and is close to what I believe.

    And of course you are right, my reference should have been to the Alister Hardy Archive of Religious Experience previously located at Oxford and now located, I believe, at the University of Wales.

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