Aging: Advice From Beyond the Grave

By Susan O’Connor

It is no secret that Madison Avenue and its digital siblings do not want us to grow up. From the trappings intended to hide aging, to the disdain toward society’s seeming inconvenience of Medicare and those pesky aging baby boomers, the message is clear. Youth has the greater value. Only youth is worth emulating. We are constantly reminded that those of us who have left that youthful fount of paradise in a paralyzing state of despair have diminished chances of living with joy. So, I ask, what are you going to listen to-the rubbish of those who want to take something precious from you, or the sage advice imparted by judicious writers whose wisdom has stood the test of time on their views about the human condition? Take heart: a source of hope to which all of us, even the young who will get old sooner or later, may turn to find a comfortable position on aging can be found in classic literature, advice, if you will, from beyond the grave.

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

In 1599 Shakespeare, that beacon of sagacity, cleverly exposed foolish Elizabethan arrogance toward aging in Twelfth Night, Act 2, scene 4, when Duke Orsino advises Cesario to ” let thy love be younger than thyself… for women are as roses, whose fair flower, being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.” Viola, disguised as Cesario, responds in her feminine enigmatic way, “And so they are. Alas that they are so: To die, even when they to perfection grow.” But, alas, Orsino doesn’t get it, and Shakespeare once again renders the pejorative nature of attitudes about aging, debunking the false claim of youthful perfection and along with it the destructive devaluing of the second half of life to individual and society alike. Despite the fact that we have adequate advice from the experts on how to accept our inevitable aging gracefully, too many of us are dismal failures at it.

Then why not look to literature, that trusty bedrock of wisdom, to provide a solution or two for living in a more honest if not efficacious way as we journey down the road to maturity? Why not, indeed, especially when we are either too daft or too buried in impossible complexes to figure out this whole aging business on our own. Help exists, if only we will look at the literature and open our minds to it, particularly the classics. Particularly Shakespeare again.

Shakespeare’s King Lear

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, our sage speaks through Lear’s lovely, astute albeit young daughter Cordelia to make the wisest decision of all. As Lear is dividing his kingdom among his three daughters, based on how eloquently they can proclaim their love for him, Cordelia answers her father with honesty rather than flattery, but, as is often the case, that is not what Lear wants to hear. He is an old man who craves flattery more than the honest love of a truthful daughter, and in the end he loses everything, including Cordelia, who loves him unconditionally. Shakespeare’s fictional characters are not the only ones for whom flattery and foolishness propagate tragedy. In reality, how difficult is it to be true to oneself when one’s own illusory image is at stake, on the verge of changing into something frighteningly less agreeable. The expectation of the human body at age 50 to look like a body at age 20 defies common sense. If the self image is one of loss rather than gain, literary reminders can provide the contrasting view of aging, a healing one with a message in which lies the confidence of reason and the guide of experience.

Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”

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One of my favorite literary examples eloquently cautions against the magnetism of youthful looks and behavior at the expense of good judgment. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” published in 1837 in Twice-Told Tales, introduces the reader to old Dr. Heidegger whose profession in his more youthful past has led him down the path of slightly dangerous scientific inquisitiveness. Now having acquired water from the fabled Fountain of Youth, he embarks on an experiment with four elderly acquaintances, three gentlemen and a lady whose past lives, shrouded in the shame of regretful decisions, can be remedied simply by accepting his offer of a second chance at youth. All that is required is to quaff the magical water and thereby accept the chance to get it right this time. Dr. Heidegger’s role is merely to observe.

The question is, why does Dr. Heidegger engage in this experiment in the first place? Does he simply wish to help his old friends improve their lives, or is he, too, considering the possibility of a new life, a second chance for himself as well? The reader learns that, after his fiancé died the night before they were to be married-he had given her one of his magic potions for a headache-he never sought love again. Hawthorne tells the us that the doctor has spent his life in only scientific pursuits, yet pressed between the pages of his black book of magic is a withered rose given to him by Sylvia, his deceased betrothed. To prove to his guests the potency of this liquid, he dips the rose into the sparkling, effervescent water and the rose blooms once more.

Before the guests drink the water, however, Dr. Heidegger beseeches them to adopt new rules in guiding their second passage through the perils of their youth. “Think what a sin and shame it would be if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!” The gentlemen and the lady make no response but quickly snatch the glasses up, begging for more until they are dancing and laughing and imitating their decrepit old selves with mocking exhilaration. As the evening passes, the tall mirror in the chamber casts a reflection, not of the now youthful looking guests, but of their gray and withered figures. They have learned nothing from this opportunity.

The three gentlemen begin threatening each other for the favor of the lady, whose coquetry engenders a battle among them. They grapple at each other’s throats until the vase shatters on the floor spilling the contents. The old guests’ youthfulness begins to fade, and they resolve to make a pilgrimage to the source of this Fountain of Youth.

A butterfly, touched by the water streaming on the floor, revives and flutters to Dr. Heidegger’s head, a sign of a decision not yet made. Will the doctor drink the water? Has he witnessed enough of the results of the experiment?

As the rose begins to shrivel, Dr. Heidegger shakes off the remaining drops of water and puts the withered flower to his withered lips. At long last he concludes, “I love it as well thus as in its dewy freshness,” and while he speaks these fateful words, as much about his own life as the rose, the butterfly flutters down from the old doctor’s white head and dies upon the floor.

Perhaps, as Hawthorne teaches us, to love our lives at every age, appreciating the balance of limitation and joy in every stage of life, is the secret to aging peacefully.

Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

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