Looking back I realized I haven’t written about positive aging in nearly a year. Sure I believe it is still possible and highly desirable. However, nothing new presented itself that hadn’t been said before, or was compelling enough to share. Plus if I’m honest, my brain was more interested in just getting through the day/month/year, with all the upheaval in my life and the world, than it was to expand my thinking. Then a couple of months ago I was offered a book from a renowned French philosopher about aging that had me asking myself whether he might offer something new on the subject. Not only did the book have me rethinking some of my preconceived notions about aging and happiness, but it also required that I look up more words in the dictionary than I have in years. While I’m the first to admit I’m usually more attracted to pop-psychology, I’m fairly certain that continuing to stretch our minds and perspectives is one of the healthiest things we can do if we want to age in a positive way.
The book in question is A Brief Eternity—The Philosophy of Longevity by Pascal Bruckner. Bruckner is a best-selling author who has authored a series of books mainly devoted to critiques of society and culture. I had never heard of him before. And make no mistake, this book is much more difficult to read than most I recommend and filled with words I doubt I will never use again. Yet there was always just a tiny bit of something that hooked me enough to keep reading over the course of a couple of weeks. I took it slow—I had too! Just to let some of the ideas play around in my head. Throughout the book Bruckner raises more questions (at least in my mind) than he answered. And while the ending wasn’t totally a surprise, it did lead to a (mostly) satisfying conclusion. Those reasons alone might make it worthy of reading.
If I had to boil down this complex study into a short paragraph I would ask: Now that we typically live longer and have been given an extension to our lives, what do we want to do with it? Calling this extra time an “Indian Summer,” Bruckner claims that all the great questions of the human condition appear in the years after we turn 50 including:
- Is it more important to us to live a long time or more intensely?
- Do we carry on as we have always done or try new things and follow new paths?
- Do we find new love? Leave old ones? Start new careers?
- How do we move beyond great joys and great pains—and keep going?
- How can we avoid the weariness of living, the melancholy of the twilight years?
- What is the strength that keeps us going despite bitterness and excess?
Filled with ideas about the evolution of aging throughout history, Buckner offers insights found in the form of literature, philosophy, the arts as well as his own observations. Peppered throughout the text are lines that illustrate his ideas and offer insights that kept me reading. For example he asks: “What reasons can we give for living fifty, sixty or seventy years? Exactly the same ones we give for living to twenty, thirty or forty. Existence remains delicious to those who cherish it, odious to those who curse.”
In another place he says, “What remains to be done when we think we’ve seen everything, experienced everything? Constantly beginning over…Life goes on: that frightfully simple sentence is perhaps the secret of a happy longevity.” And another statement dear to my heart, “We are always living on a trial basis; existence is above all an experiment.”
I did believe he went a little overboard discussing “eros” in old age (he is French after all). But interspersed within the discussion about why and how we will continue to want and need sex as we age, he plants more ideas like: “Experiencing strong emotions—in the broadest sense of the term—luck, pleasure, good fortune, and enjoying all the kindnesses of the world is not reserved for people under fifty. Even if one has lived a full life, there remains much to do before bringing down the curtain. And in particular this: to rediscover routine as a miracle.”
Do I agree with everything he suggests? Absolutely not. But I did find interest in questioning why I disagreed with him in those parts, and there are still little bits of questions poking around in the corners of my mind. For example he doesn’t seem to be a fan of stoicism and he questions the emphasis of the current dystopic vision surrounding our environmental future—for the damage it is doing to the psyche of our young. He also disagrees with the popular pastime of wanting to “find ourselves” as an indulgence that often blurs the fine line between self-love and vanity. His view is that “A time comes when we have to stop asking ‘Who am I?’ and ask instead ‘What can I do?’ What am I allowed to undertake at this point in my life?”
Areas that I did agree with concerned the obsession of some people doing everything and spending fortunes to extend their lifetime and live forever. He says, “The main argument that can be used against militant supporters of immortality is that, by trying so hard not to die, they forget to live.” He also believes that our consumer culture is being driven by a lack of meaning, and supports the idea that all those purchases are attempts to medicate the lack of happiness and purpose in our lives.
As for eternity? Bruckner states, “Eternity is what we are living in this precise moment. There is no other.” Near the conclusion he declares, “Right to the end, we must remain beings that say yes, that adhere unconditionally to what is: we must celebrate the splendor of the world, its dazzling wonders. Living on this earth is a miracle, even if it is an endangered miracle.” Finally he closes with, “The only word we ought to utter every morning, in recognition of the gift we have been given, is: Thanks.” That sounds like SMART advice to me.