Essays - Winter 2019

This Side of Paradise

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Aging has its rewards until it doesn’t. I am ready to contemplate the end but not, yet, to give in to it

By Paula Marantz Cohen | December 3, 2018

In the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques, the misanthropic philosopher of the play, expounds on the individual life cycle. He begins with the unsavory aspects of babyhood—“the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”—and ends with the bleakest rendering of old age:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I have been thinking about this trajectory lately—the last scene in human life, in particular—as I seriously confront my own old age and eventual death. When I turned 60, five years ago, with only a decade left to my allotted three score and 10, I began to ruminate on these things. I can honestly say that before turning 60, I was focused on the road forward. At the stroke of 60, I began to look back.

Birthdays are supposed to make us feel proud of something that we took no part in accomplishing (i.e., getting born). But as with so much that seems to be given gratis, they make us pay later. We like to celebrate when we are young, then like doing so less and less as we grow older. Birthdays are like those fairy tale gifts that turn on the recipient.

Custom decrees that predictable emotional responses be built into certain landmark birthdays: 21 is exciting and to be welcomed; 30 is a watershed—good if you are launched in life and love, distressing if you are not; 40 is dubious—a time when you can still assume, with some effort, that you are young; 50 is when you probably can’t but still try—the classic moment for a midlife crisis; 60 is the time to face not being young and thus contemplate the prospect of being old.

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