This Side of Paradise

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


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.

My late mother lied about her age for much of her life. She was a woman of the 1950s who, despite her career and her intellect, prided herself on her appearance and was determined, until the advent of a debilitating neurological disease that overtook her in her 60s, to appear young. A devoted grandmother, she nonetheless insisted that my children call her and my father by their first names—Ruth and Murray—which, when performed by a two-year-old, had the ring of precocity.

I sporadically copied my mother’s tendency to lie about my age until, at 60, I abandoned the tactic altogether. Perhaps the shadow of her illness—a powerful antidote to vanity—sobered me. Perhaps the effort needed to maintain a lie became too much. Had I told this person that I was two or three years younger than my actual age? I couldn’t remember. And given the age I was supposed to be, when would I have been born? The need for this calculation crops up in conversation more frequently than you’d think.

But the real reason I stopped lying was less from a diminishment of vanity or mathematical ineptitude and more from a loss of will to pretend to be younger than I was. My age, you could say, caught up with me. I had been running a race with it that I was winning for a while but was ultimately fated to lose. Even those of us in excellent health, engaged with work and other people, feel at some point that expansion of the past and ebbing of the future that point us toward our eventual end.

We may look good, we may have all our marbles, but life has rubbed up against us for a certain length of time; our parts are abraded, and more ineffably, our brains have become less pliant. We see things that we have already seen, instead of being surprised by what we haven’t. More to the point, we think things that we have already thought rather than thinking new things. And even new things don’t seem so new. Certain professions that require surprise are tethered to youth for this reason, while those that involve the accrual of facts into prepatterned systems can persist into older age—hence, artists and inventors wear youth well, while critics and accountants tend to improve with age.

As a writer, I have found that this awareness of a narrowing with regard to what is possible has made me think about my life as I would think about a book moving toward its conclusion. The early stages of writing a novel have a quality of serendipity about them—the pieces are being laid out but are not as yet fully arranged. The beginning is still an adventure into the unknown, a honing of plot and character that comes about through an incremental movement forward and clearing away of possibilities.

At a certain point, the end of the book one is writing (or, for that matter, reading) begins to appear. It can be exhilarating to know that the book will be finished, that a place looms where all the action and characters, all the descriptive material, the forays into this and that, will be consolidated and closed off. But it also signals a shift in creativity. When the end is glimpsed, the editing process has, in a way, already begun. It is now a matter of retrospect—figuring out what should stay and what should be elaborated on, not to mention how the finished product will be viewed. The artist gives way to the editor and critic. Henry James offers a striking example of this perspective. Toward the end of his life, he became obsessed with revision of his oeuvre and adding critical commentary to it. For James, his writing and his life had always been closely allied, so it makes sense that he would look back and try to control his legacy.

Up until the advent of serious illness, age can be looked on as a social construction or, at least, as subject to emendation.

Most of us aren’t literary control freaks; we don’t plot our lives exactly. But in living them, we create stories about ourselves that solidify and lead us forward until we see where we will end up. Then we might be inclined to give the narrative proper closure. I recently discovered that the feminist literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun had anticipated some of the concerns I am voicing here more than 20 years ago, when she wrote about aging in The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. She had had a successful career as a writer—both of criticism and of suspense novels (the latter written under the pen name Amanda Cross)—but found herself floundering after she turned 60. As she explains in this book, she originally planned to commit suicide at 70, but life continued to engage her, so, as she put it, “I daily choose life … because it is a choice.” She made the choice to live until the age of 77, when she did kill herself. She was in good enough health, had a large family and admiring readers and former students, but she could not live without the drive forward. She needed to provide closure when no further storyline presented itself. I understand Heilbrun’s decision, but I am also appalled by it. I look at her case as an example of where I would not like to go—a cautionary tale of how a forward-looking perspective combined with a need for control may go too far.

Up until the advent of debilitating illness, age can be looked on as a social construction or, at least, as subject to emendation in the wake of modern medicine, a healthful life style, and a positive state of mind. At one time in history, 60 might have been an unequivocal marker for old age; it isn’t today, when we are both optimistic about healthy longevity and more intent on continuing to make contributions to society. My own father, who is 93, defied the conventions of his era when he started a chemical company at age 60 and then sold it at 85. I myself moved at 60 into a new area of my university—from faculty member to administrator—which suggests that there may be something in my genes that allows for this late-life burst of energy.

At the same time, it would be incorrect to say that I embarked then on a new path with the same exhilaration that I did at 25 or 30 or even 40, when “the world was all before [me],” as Milton said of Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost. Their expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the beginning—their entry into the adventure of the wide world—while also being the beginning of the end. Given their trespass, they were destined to suffer eventual death. That is the fate of us all, only we don’t feel its truth until a certain age.

Getting old also means a changed relationship to acquiring things. In youth, I had wants. As I looked in store windows or appraised what others had, I could think about where this or that item fit on some imaginary grid. As I age, that grid is filled in. I now purchase only replacements for something that has worn out or better versions of what I already have. The pleasure of acquiring a set of dangling pearl earrings, a pair of red pumps, or a good leather cross-body bag happened years ago. My wants are more exotic or expensive without necessarily being more joyful.

An analogy exists between this drying up of material wants and the stalling of desire that Lacanian analysts connect with creative stalement and depression. To desire things is not unconnected to desire in general—for other people and for ideas. To lose this drive for something—inanimate, animate, or simply conversational—spells stasis and the beginning of death.

After 60, even a new endeavor has the quality of a coda. Becoming an administrator when I did feels less like the beginning of an exciting career, as it would for many others, than like the beginning of an exciting retirement. It’s not that I am working less, but that I see my work in less urgent terms, without the same intensity I felt for earlier challenges. This state might make me a better manager, since it affords perspective. If things fall a bit behind, a mistake is made, a staff member can’t make a meeting because of a sick child, I see no great problem.

One of the good things about being my age is that I have stopped caring quite as much about little things and even big ones. This can look like, if it isn’t actually, wisdom.

Shakespeare’s unflattering characterization of old age as second childhood applies in one sense even to the most vital 60-year-olds. We may not yet be toothless, but we are metaphorically without the power of physical attraction and mental savvy that we once had. We are, with few exceptions, behind the curve technologically. As smart as I sometimes think I am, I feel continually put in my place by students who fix my computer or remind me how to use the Blackboard function to post my assignments, grades, and discussion strands for the classes I still teach. I don’t know the music that so many people listen to, and though I watch a great deal of television (both because TV is so good nowadays and because of a new mental lassitude that makes me enjoy the passivity of the medium), I somehow miss knowing what a whole swath of younger people find fascinating or important. I didn’t get the Bernie movement, I don’t understand not wearing stockings in the winter, I don’t like the new naturally curly look for hair—an eternal point of contention with my daughter (how hard I worked to subdue what she is encouraging!). No matter what shoes I wear, my feet begin to hurt after half a mile; there’s the dull ache of bursitis in my thumb; and my body, without gaining weight, has somehow moved its flesh around so that it looks lumpy, even in Spanx.

These are the inevitable signs of age—minor ones that don’t deserve complaint when you compare them with illness or incapacity of a debilitating sort, but that make me think of my mortality every day, and think of the story that my life will tell when I reach the end of it.

I suppose there are many people who contemplate the meaning of life when they are younger. But I am convinced that most people cannot think about death as it applies to them until they reach old age (and even then, it’s hard to dwell on it with any consistency or sustained attention). Victor Hugo’s famous comment always occurs to me in this context: “We are all condemned to death but with a kind of indefinite reprieve.” What this means is that we never know when the end will come and therefore can imagine that we will beat the odds; we will be the exceptions who will live forever. I believe that most people retain, up until a certain point, a visceral conviction of immortality, as much as they may intellectually accept the idea of death.

A truly philosophical perspective comes only with an imminent threat of extinction on the one hand or an utter sense of weariness with life on the other. Hamlet could articulate the idea that “the readiness is all” because he knew himself to be in a dire state—awaiting a duel with Laertes, knowing his uncle wanted him dead. But it could also be argued that he wanted himself dead at this point in the play. He was exhausted by the angst of what he knew, not only about the murder of his father but also about human nature as reflected in his mother and his friends. He had had enough of life. This adds another facet to the process of facing death: we finally come to accept it when we feel our options are gone. I am certainly not at that point, but looking at people in the extremes of ill health or mental suffering, who have lost a sense of purpose or outlived their friends and loved ones, I can understand how this acceptance—this “readiness”—may eventually come.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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