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Old Man and Old Age Proverb

While much else may have fallen away, wisdom and strengthening inner resources are the just rewards of a long life. Make sure you preserve them.

Jungian analyst and author, Helen M. Luke, wrote a number of volumes of insightful literary criticism and numerous philosophical essays with a strong spiritual aspect. In the collection titled simply, Old Age, she writes about growing old wisely. Her work is always worth reading. However, as she grew old herself she became something of a defeatist, and as have so many others in the West, seems to have fallen under the influence of Buddhism. She nihilistically exhorts us, as we grow old, to “let go of much that has been central even to our inner lives.” She proposes abandoning “the wisdom and grace which have come to us through the active years of our lives.”

Why abandon the nourishing inner life that may succour us in the trials of old age? Why would we wish to divest ourselves of a lifetime of precious hard-won wisdom?

In place of our jettisoned wisdom and rich inner life (surely the primary rewards of old age), she presents us with the usual Eastern paradoxical vision of vacuum: “… that emptiness which is the fullness of Mercy.” We must practice “… a gradual letting go, through which alone the emptiness comes, into which the glory may enter.” This last is the Buddhist notion of the empty cup, eternally emptying out and being refilled, and is followed by the now obligatory attack on Western values: “… the final letting go of all profit motives, on all the levels of our being – the end of all demand for results.”

God forbid anyone should want to get results.

This nasty little package of nonsense amounts to abandoning ship, and then cutting ourselves adrift. Adapting to the realities of old age by slowing the ship of self and lightening its workload is a better, kinder, more moderate strategy. Nothing can justify severing links with the things that truly matter to us, for these things are essential parts of the self. Such a ruthless act of self-mutilation, unilaterally perpetrated by an unrealistic ego, can bring only inner conflict, depression, apathy, and perhaps even the lonely horrors of self-alienation.

Luke is sometimes guilty of trying to evade prolonged difficult experiences. Like so many of us, she has a tendency to want a quick fix. (Ironically, a quick fix is an attempt to get the very “results” she claims we should not be striving for!) In the case of old age, she wants to sidestep, by taking short-term extreme action, the normal slow process of coming to terms with aging. She writes, “… we may enter [a happier state] if we have passed through … the purging flame ….” Luke was an idealist, so everything in her world must turn out to be wonderful: “For those who choose to let go … old age becomes freedom … becomes the dance ….” Yet this sounds suspiciously like the memorable line from the song “Me and Bobby McGee”… “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”*

*Music and lyrics by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.

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