I’ve always welcomed birthdays, never quite understanding the dread some people feel at turning a year older. I mean, what’s the point of spending your 50th birthday wishing you were still 49, when in 12 month’s time, you’ll be wishing you were still 50? It never made sense to me, and so I’ve never shied away from growing older.
But just lately, the steadfast way I have positively embraced the years passing has started to quiver – just a little bit. I’ve found myself looking ahead with a touch of trepidation that I’ve honestly never felt before.
And then I stumbled across an article that snapped me right out of that. It made me pause and consider growing older from a different and much more beautiful angle.
The article I’m referring to is an introduction to a new translation of a book written by Marcus Tullius Cicero in 44BC. Cicero, the famous Roman orator and statesman who disastrously opposed Julius Caesar, turned to writing after being exiled to his country estate. His short book, ‘How to Grow Old’, has become much revered classic that has inspired readers throughout the centuries, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Philip Freeman’s synopsis of this book has centred me back on the path of accepting and embracing every birthday, every year and every phase of life. It has reminded me that they all have their own importance and their own distinct place. I couldn’t summarise Freeman’s commentary on Cicero’s wise lessons about old age any better, so I have merely presented it in full here:
- A good old age begins in youth. Cicero says the qualities that make the later years of our lives productive and happy should be cultivated from the beginning. Moderation, wisdom, clear thinking, enjoying all that life has to offer—these are habits we should learn while we are young since they will sustain us as we grow older. Miserable young people do not become happier as they grow older.
- Old age can be a wonderful part of life. The senior years can be very enjoyable if we have developed the proper internal resources. Yes, there are plenty of unhappy old people, but they shouldn’t blame age for their problems. Their faults, Cicero says, are the result of poor character, not the number of years they have lived.
- There are proper seasons to life. Nature has fashioned human life so that we enjoy certain things when we are young and others when we are older. Attempting to cling to youth after the appropriate time is useless. If you fight nature, you will lose.
- Older people have much to teach the young. There is genuine wisdom in life that can be gained only by experience. It is our pleasure and duty as we grow older to pass this on to those younger than us who are willing to listen. But young people also can offer much to their elders, including the pleasure of their lively company.
- Old age need not deny us an active life, but we need to accept limitations. No eighty-year-old is going to win a foot race against healthy young people in their twenties, but we can still be physically active within the modest constraints imposed on us by our bodies. And there is so much older people can do that doesn’t require great physical strength, from studying and writing to offering wisdom and experience to our communities.
- The mind is a muscle that must be exercised. Cicero has the main character of his book learn Greek literature in his later years and carefully recall the events of the day before going to sleep each night. Whatever technique works, it is vital to use our minds as much as possible as we grow older.
- Older people must stand up for themselves. Or as Cicero says, “Old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath.” The later years of life are no time for passivity.
- Sex is highly overrated. Not that older people can’t enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, but the relentless sexual passions of youth fade as we grow older—and thank goodness they do, according to Cicero. The reduction of sensual appetites gives us room to enjoy other aspects of life that are much more satisfying and lasting.
- Cultivate your own garden. Cicero presents this idea in his chapter praising the delights of farming, but there is an important lesson here. Finding a worthwhile activity in our later years that gives us true enjoyment is essential for happiness. Spreading manure or pruning grapevines may not be your passion, but whatever yours is, pursue it with joy.
- Death is not to be feared. Cicero says that death marks either the end of human consciousness or the beginning of eternal bliss. Whether or not this is true, it certainly holds, as Cicero says, that life is like a play. A good actor knows when to leave the stage. To cling desperately to one’s life when it has been lived well and is drawing to a close is both futile and foolish.
The beautiful lessons in this book have stood the test of time since 44BC. Cicero has given us the tools to pay the same respect to old age as we already do to the younger phases of our lives. Old age really can be welcomed and enjoyed if we keep these lessons front of mind.
The first step towards living a good and contented old age is having a plan. Thinking about what would make you enjoy your older years can halt any sense of dread you may have about growing older. Start talking with your friends and family, and find out what options are available to support the way you want to live in the future.
The full article can be found at: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10676.pdf