Saturday, March 27, 2010

(23) Aging Well

Many of the great Stoic thinkers, like Seneca, were quite
down-to-earth and talked in a universal language that
holds meaning for most of us today. These philosophers
spoke to and wrote for their friends, for the citizenry of the
Greco-Roman world, and maybe they just might speak to us!

As for aging in this life, that's one item we all have in
common. As for aging *well,* that's not so common. This
is an area where the words of Seneca might seem quite
applicable. Let us proceed with his good, practical wisdom.

"Often an old man will have nothing but the calendar to
prove that he has lived a long time." [Moses Hadas
W.W. Norton & Co., 1958, p. 84.]

So many of us complain that life is so short, but for Seneca
it's only short "when it is squandered through luxury and
indifference, and spent for no good end..." For him it's all
a matter of how we use our life, how we engage in life.
"The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are
not ill provided but use what we have wastefully."
[Ibid, p. 48.]

Rather "it takes a great allow none of his time to
be frittered away; such a man's life is very long because he
devotes every available minute of it to himself. None of it lies
idle and unexploited, none of it is at the disposal of another."
[Ibid, p. 55.]

I don't think Seneca is advocating a narcissistic selfishness
in this above statement. In this case he is talking about a
person who is sufficient unto himself, a person who knows
his likes and dislikes, a person who can carry out pursuits
effectively, and a person who can plan ahead.

For Seneca "the man who puts all of his time to his own
uses, who plans every day as if it were his last, is neither
impatient for the morrow nor afraid of it." [Ibid, p. 56.]

Conversely, those "busy over nothing" can never restore
their years--and no one can gain lost time back.

Seneca is especially discussing how we employ our leisure.
Naturally, as a Stoic, he considers that the best way to engage
in this time we have to ourselves is to "take time for philosophy."
In a sense he is referring to our grasp of great human works
down through history, and how we may take such unto
ourselves and make it part of our own life's continuum!

"Only men who make Zeno and Pythagoras and Democritus
and the other high priests of liberal studies their daily familiars,
who cultivate Aristotle and Theophrastus, can properly be said
to be engaged in the duties of life." [Ibid, p. 66.]

As for these ancient philosophers, as for all the great modern
thinkers in many fields, whose disciplines we select to study
today, "It is not their lifetime alone of which they are careful
stewards: they annex every age to their own and exploit all the
years that have gone before." [Ibid, p. 65.]

Interestingly, Seneca draws an analogy regarding these
studious pursuits. "It is a common saying that a man's parents
are not of his own choosing but allotted to him by chance. But
we can choose our genealogy. Here are families with noble
endowments: choose whichever you wish to belong to."
[Ibid, p. 67.]

The more we connect to great and noble thinking, the more
noble we become, and the more noble our efforts as life unfolds.

Moving even more precisely, towards a deeper personal level,
Seneca believes that in order to age well we need also to develop
a stability of mind. By this he means the "well-being of soul,"
which he calls *tranquility.*

Seneca puts the question: how can the mind "maintain a
consistent and advantageous course, be kind to itself and take
pleasure in its attributes...[and] abide in its serenity, without
excitement or depression?" [Ibid, p. 80.]

For Seneca it's easy to observe the general populace, full of
people "who are afflicted with fickleness and ennui and
continual shifting of aim." These are people who blow with the
wind and oft are blown away by the wind, so to speak. They are
not able to settle. They don't know their own mind. And many
abhor innovation. Seneca realizes that this common malady "
has countless symptoms but its effect is uniform--dissatisfaction
with self." [Ibid, p.80.]

This ancient malady is also extremely modern, as Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi--the exponent of "Flow" psychology-- points
out: "In normal everyday existence, we are the prey of thoughts
and worries intruding unwanted in consciousness...
Consequently the ordinary state of mind involves unexpected
and frequent entropy interfering with the smooth run of psychic
energy." [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY
OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, Harper Perennial, 1991, p. 58.]

This common condition reflects the vacillation of minds that
seemingly can find no outlet. Seneca describes such minds in
that they are "naturally restless, and obviously without internal
resources." These are people who are never at rest, always in
need of entertainment--and when this is "withdrawn, their
mind cannot endure home,loneliness, walls, and cannot
abide itself left to itself." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF
SENECA, p. 81.]

So, is there a remedy?

Yes, but the responsibility for aging well rests squarely upon
the individual. Seneca provides a general outline for a
balanced life: though a man may seemingly lead a life of
"insulated" leisure, it still is his duty "to be of service to
individuals and to mankind by his intelligence, his voice,
his counsel." [Ibid, p. 83.]

For those embarking on such a noble course, Seneca stresses
that "our first duty will be to examine ourselves, next the
career we shall undertake, and finally our associates in the
work and its beneficiaries."What he is describing is that we
develop an ability for strategic thinking, quietly studying and
determining our course before we set sail from one point in our
life to the next. [Ibid, p. 87.]

Beyond this, be realistic! Regarding any endeavor, Seneca
stresses that you "put your hand to one you can finish or at
least hope to finish..." [Ibid, p. 88.]

And realistic goal-setting, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is
psychologically positive and enjoyable---because "clear goals,
stable rules, and challenges [that are] well matched to skills
[present] little opportunity for the self to be threatened."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 63.]

Of course life is not all work and service to others. We need
to well serve ourselves also. If we are to lead a successful
life, one of our crucial choices will center upon friendship. "
Nothing can equal the pleasures of faithful and congenial
friendship." But Seneca gives warning! We need to be mindful
over the choice of our friends. Rather than moving into
diatribes about choosing good or bad people as friends,
Seneca puts it simply: "To mingle the healthy with the sick
is the beginning of disease." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY
OF SENECA, p. 89.]

Seneca's wisdom is reflected by Csikszentmihalyi when he
exclaims that besides enjoyable work, "studies on Flow have
demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the
quality of life depends on...our relations with other people."
He proceeds: "We are biologically programmed to find other
human beings the most important objects in the world." And
as Seneca stressed, and Csikszentmihalyi states, we need to be
discerning about our choice of friends..."because they can
make life either very interesting and fulfilling or utterly we manage relationships with them makes
an enormous difference to our happiness."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 164.]

It pays to be thrifty, too! Of course there's the woes of
materialism and ostentation, but Seneca focuses especially
on spiritual thrift. "We must learn to strengthen self-restraint,
curb luxury, temper ambition, moderate anger, view poverty
calmly, cultivate frugality...keep restive aspirations...and
make it our business to get our riches from ourselves rather
than from Fortune." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF
SENECA, p. 91.]

Not forgetting that a balanced life is a better life, Seneca
alerts us that we must also engage in solitude as well as
service. "It is important to withdraw into one's self." We
need respite for ourselves, time to relax and enjoy life. So
go ahead and pursue the joys of the intellect or the athletic
life. Pursue, too, simplicity: "We ought to take outdoor
walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing
in the open air. Sometimes energy will be refreshed by a
carriage drive, a journey, a change of scene, good company,
and a more generous wine." [Ibid, p. 105.]

But Csikszentmihalyi realizes that solitude is a major
concern for modern people. Talking about ways to grow,
about ways of creating higher forms of order in our lives in
order to forestall entropy, he points out that we need to take
time for quiet learning and improving our skills. And,
especially, when "physical vigor fails with means
that one [should] be ready to turn one's energies from the
mastery of the external world to a deep exploration of inner
reality." But--"it is difficult to accomplish any of them unless
one has earlier acquired the habit of using solitude to good
advantage." We need to "tame" solitude, and Seneca's excellent
suggestions above provide a fine foundation.
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 172.]

Nonetheless, Seneca is no Pollyanna. He realizes the
adversities that all of us must face in this life. It's seemingly
our condition in this world. Still we have the ability to cope
and adapt, if we so choose--even with this! "Man must...
complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever good
lies within his reach." Again, "apply good sense to your
problems; the hard can be softened, the narrow widened,
and the heavy made lighter by the skillful bearer." And for
what is seemingly impossible, leave it alone! [Hadas,

For Csikszentmihalyi, Seneca's above advice is about
"taming chaos." As he puts it, "sooner or later everyone
will have to confront events that contradict his goals:
disappointments, severe illness, financial reversal, and
eventually the inevitability of one's death." Thus, "It is for
this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, mature
defense, or transformation coping--the dissipative structures
of the mind--are so essential. Without them we would be
constantly suffering through the random bombardment
of stray psychological meteorites."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 202.]

And, finally, any life well spent must look bravely at the
issue of death. If we fear too much and dwell on death, it will
bring us down. "A man afraid of death will never play the part
of a live man." Rather than dwell on death, depression, and
discouragement, Seneca wisely advises that we "take the
lighter view of these is more civilized to laugh
at life than to lament over it." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY
OF SENECA, p. 102.]

(The above essay of mine was originally posted in my "Stoa
del Sol" website.)