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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Fear of Old Age

Forever Young” has always had a special resonance for me – not simply because of my surname but rather because of what has been  my disinclination to think of how ageing might affects me.
A couple of posts last August, eg Intimations of Mortality and Facing up to our Mortality were perhaps the first indication of how my attitude was beginning to change – identifying and excerpting from three important books -
Being Mortal – illness, medicine and what matters in the end; by a very literate and humane American surgeon, Atul Gawande (2014);
Ammonites and Leaping Fish – a Life in Time; by British writer Penelope Lively (2003) – a short but delightfully-written musing on what it is to be “old”. This article is a selection of the first half of the book from which I have extracted this - 
I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus.
The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new. It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I've seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

Out of Time – the Pleasures and Perils of Ageing by British feminist and sociologist Lynne Segal (2013) I found rather too self-indulgent but the late-lamented Jenni Diski reviewed it superbly in the link the title gives , with this part focusing on the politics - 
One of her primary concerns is the war between the generations. The one in which, to our surprise, we are now the old and tiresome. But this time, there are worse accusations being chucked around. We are the baby boomers, the demographic catastrophe waiting to happen that is now happening. Baby boomers lived their youth in a golden time.
Far from having to go into tens of thousands of pounds of debt, we had free tuition and decent grants to live on while we received a higher education. The generation that bore us and lived through the hardships of war and austerity, while disapproving of us, also provided us with welfare benefits that allowed us to take time off from earning a living, to play with ideas and new ways (we thought) of organising socially and politically, of exploring other cultures, drugs, craziness, clothes and music.

Now, this free time seems mythic. If we wanted jobs, there were plenty of them. If we didn’t, we benefited in a way that would be called scrounging now (it was then, but no one stopped it).
 We are costing a fortune as we age and we’ll go on to cost much more because medical science has promised us twenty more years of some sort of life than our parents expected.Our pensions, the medical expertise and equipment, the time and energy needed to care and cater for a disproportionately large aged population: all this, the young have been told, is coming out of their earnings and limiting their wellbeing. We got grants to do up houses we bought cheaply. They can’t get a mortgage. Workers to our queens, they are providing our good life, in suburbia, beside the sea, in sunny Spain, filling hospital beds, out of their taxes.
We take our pensions, our cold weather payments, foreign holidays and cruises, while the young struggle to find jobs to pay for our needs, our strokes, our previously unhealthy lifestyles that caused the sicknesses which the impoverished NHS is obliged to cure.
Segal, quite rightly, doesn’t blame the young for their anger, but mostly the media for provoking it. ‘Older people lived the “good life”. Why should the young have to pay for it?’ the Guardian asks. ‘Crumblies should stop whingeing and claiming priority over a scant welfare budget. We created this me-first world, now we should give something back,’ says 74-year-old Stewart Dakers. 

Some articles I archived in 2012 and 2013 show that the physical side of ageing was beginning even then to register on me – particularly “Daddy Issues”; a review of the “Amour” film; a shocking commentary about Japanese attitudes; and a piece on the loneliness epidemic  

I notice that I now have a dozen or so books on the theme of ageing and death including a solitary humorous take on the subject - Growing Old – the last Campaign - by Des Wilson (2014). The link is actually to a powerful defence of the elderly from the resentful anger which Diski refers to – written by Wilson who was the most famous British campaigner of the second half of the century

The British philosopher John Gray reviewed last year a couple of important books on the subject -
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life; by retired British gerontologist, poet and polymath Raymond Tallis (2015) - and
The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life; by American psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski 

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Tallis’ book is a complex philosophical read as indicated by this Spiked Online review
Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent.
The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late:

The German television channel Deutsche Welle actually contains the best take on the second book’s theme in an interview which allows the authors to explain their theory about how we handle our existential fear of death which they call, curiously “terror-management” 
For most of human history, most people didn’t have all that much. Life was short; you spent most of your waking hours trying to find something to eat. And in the absence of the technology for mass production, most folks did not accumulate all that much. The primary mode of production was that we had to make stuff by hand. If you were a shoemaker, you made an entire shoe - and if you made good shoes then you could feel justly proud for your accomplishments. 
And then the industrial revolution comes along. And on the one hand, mass production gives us the capacity to produce high quality goods at prices that many people can afford. On the other hand, the division of labor just radically shifted the nature of work. Now, you don’t make a whole shoe any more, you just slap the heel on it. And that’s what you do for eight hours a day for forty years. You don’t own a shoe; you take no pride in slapping the heel on it. And consequently, there is no longer the capacity for acquiring self-regard by virtue of what you literally do. From humans as makers to humans as takers - a radical shift from valuing yourself by your accomplishments in terms of what you tangibly produce to valuing yourself by abstract figures in a bankbook..... 
And one thing that we can do is buy a lot of rubbish. Another thing we can do is to take the death anxiety and to pin it on other people either in or outside of our culture - and to just say “oh, these are the all- encompassing repositories of evil”. It used to be the communists. And now, it’s Islamic terrorists. Domestically, we used to hate the hippies – but they are okay now, because jeans cost 200 bugs and the hippies are hedge fund managers. So then, we hate homosexuals, right? But they are ok, so now, we hate old people or we hate people who don’t speak English and so on... So, what will we do with those folks? Well, belittle them or we try to convince them that our way of life is better or - when that doesn’t work - we just kill them.

And I actually unearthed (and downloaded) today The Loneliness of The Dying a short book written by the famous Anglo-German sociologist Elias Norbert in 1985 –

John Gray perhaps puts it best –
Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.
Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

update
at the weekend, this interesting article appeared - attracting an equally interesting discussion 
and, in October, this fascinating review about longevity
And, in December , https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/15/old-people-dementia-death-social-care-costs; and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fixed_Period 
On December 31, Joseph Epstein penned this magnificent ode to approaching 80
In January this first part of a series

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