Update: my father’s lung infection is gone now and we expect him home on Monday. Which has prompted me to be thinking about aging (I’m 52 and that is old enough to not be as young as I once was either). These thoughts started with the lines from Dylan Thomas, below, going ’round in my head.
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas told his father,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Rage as an Affirmation of Life
Robert Hughes, and expatriate Australian, was involved in a traffic accident due to a drunk driver. He nearly died and tells us that he saw death (a bank clerk behind a desk whose mouth widened and was about to swallow him), at which point he felt this incredible upwelling of rage – that he would not die.
Perhaps fortunately most of us don’t experience this kind of primal rage often, if at all. We are familiar with rage as destructive but we don’t hear so much about it as a fundamental affirmation. To fight and not surrender even when we know we will die is a possibility that is open to us – and that can be a positive one (though it may not be).
Rage and Clinging
But it was Dylan making this statement not his father. From the tone I guess that Dylan’s father was more resigned or accepting to his death than Dylan wanted him to be. The rage is, at least partly, Dylan’s.
Dylan is clinging on to his father – he doesn’t want him to resign or accept but to fight.
I have had the opportunity of being around many old people in the last few years (mostly my parents’ friends – my parents are 87). Few of them rage at dying. Some are clinging on to past youth – sad that they can’t do what they once could. Others are impatient for their life to be over. The most poignant example of this came, not from a friend of my parents, but when I was working in a nursing home. One of the nurses I worked with was told by a patient,
I spent all night practising letting go – and then they come and give me pills.
Rage is an active engagement with what is going on. Clinging is attempting to hold on to what is past.
Clinging is understandable and may evoke compassion in us – but it is a sad business. And hopeless – even if noble. What we have done is permanent (it can’t be undone) and gone for good.
Memory and Identity
When we know that we will die soon and we have had a long life, it is natural to remember and reminisce. This too is an active engagement with our life. And may be an enjoyable pastime with others as well. Re-telling a familiar story can be a pleasure (and Hollywood and publishers profit handsomely from doing it).
What is sad is when we can’t be who we are – when we can only mourn that we are not who we once were. Old age is not the same as youth. Its pleasures and difficulties are different.
Old age asks us to develop our identity – to not cling on to an old one.
In our materialistic culture, obsessed with youthful looks and valuing people by what they can achieve, this is not easy to do. We are not encouraged to graciously accommodate our limitations – we are encouraged to fight and transcend them. Perhaps because, perhaps like Dylan, we don’t want to know that our loved ones will die – are dying.
But if we can have a sense of transience then we can also have a sense of the preciousness of life. This moment with a loved one can be treasured, this project we are working on can be worthwhile, we can have a sense of what we value. Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, was called the good counsellor – in light of death we can get a sense of proportion and what matters.
This leads to statements like,
“Who ever died wishing they had spend more time at the office?”.
Accept the Guidance of Your Aging
This is a common visualisation – but one worth doing.
Imagine you are sitting in a rocking chair surrounded by your grandchildren or young people. Imagine that you are speaking to them in an easy way, and that they are happy to sit and listen.
- What would you like to tell them of your life?
- What would you tell them that you value?
- What would you tell them to value?
- What instructions or advice would you give them?
Can you do one small thing to follow your own advice or instructions? (if you aren’t already).
If you would like to share the advice you give in the comments I would love to hear it, Evan.
To find out how to live authentically you can download my manifesto.
It has exercises that will help you experience what authenticity means for you and so experience a more satisfying life.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave this anonymously if you wish.