December 1, 2015 by Jean
Recently, I read Jimmy Carter’s book, The Virtues of Aging (Ballantine, 1998), written when Carter was in his mid-seventies. He notes that he wrote the book to provide a counterpoint to all the negative assumptions about aging that pervade our culture, a goal that I applaud. The book is a slim volume, really more of an essay. This was the first Jimmy Carter book I’ve read, but I know Carter as a thoughtful, intelligent person and was expecting pithy, highly intelligent philosophical meat. What I got instead was autobiographical fluff, a big disappointment. My disappointment in the book was not unique; the members of my retirees lunch group pronounced the book “thin.”
I think my biggest disappointment was that, despite the title, Jimmy Carter never named the virtues of aging. Instead, he told stories about his retirement experience and his active lifestyle and left it to the reader to extract the general lessons. As I finished the book, I found myself wondering how I would name the virtues of aging. I’m one of those people who has found the aging process a positive one – but why? What is it that aging provides that youth cannot?
My thinking about the virtues of aging is very much a work in progress, but so far I’ve identified two clusters of virtues that I associate with aging (and retirement). The first cluster are virtues related to life experience:
- Perspective – Life experience provides elders with a larger context for understanding both the mundane and the unusual. When we encounter difficulties, we have more resources for dealing with them because we can relate them to other similar difficulties we have dealt with in the past. That experience means that a situation that might have seemed like a crisis when we were younger is more likely to be taken in stride. I think elders should claim this virtue of aging. When I watched the recent Democratic Presidential debate, I was struck by the unwillingness of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to do so when asked what crises in their lives had prepared them for the inevitable crises they would encounter as President. Presumably, this is because their age is considered a detriment by political pundits and they didn’t want to call attention to it. Only Martin O’Malley, the youngest of the Democratic candidates, responded by claiming the virtue of perspective that comes from experience.
- Self-confidence – Part of the perspective that comes from life experience is greater confidence in our ability to deal with what life throws at us. “Okay,” we think, “this is going to be hard, but I’ve done hard things before; I can handle it.” In their 1983 book about women’s psychological well-being (Life Prints: New Patterns of Love and Work for Today’s Women), Grace Baruch, Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers found that the particular aspect of well-being they called “mastery” was particularly high among divorced women. These women felt that they had already dealt with a world of difficulty and come out the other side stronger for it. I think “mastery” is also one of the virtues of aging.
- Knowing yourself – One of the characteristics of elders that provides us with both perspective and self-confidence is that, by this stage of life, we know ourselves. We are likely to have taken the measure of our own strengths and weaknesses, to understand both the productive and unproductive ways that we respond to life circumstances and events, and to be able to use this knowledge to respond more effectively.
The second cluster of virtues I associate with aging are related to time:
- Understanding that time is precious – There comes a point as we age when we realize that we have already used up more than half our allotted time. I believe it was the late Carolyn Heilbrun (although I can’t find the quote) who wrote that youth is exciting because time seems infinite, while middle age is exciting because we understand that time is finite. As a result, we begin to think about time differently as we age and to realize that each year, each day, each moment is precious.
- Having time – Happily, even as time grows more precious and seems to speed by more quickly, we are likely to have more time. As we age, the most urgent demands of child-rearing and work recede, giving us some breathing room. For many of us, this is the attraction of retirement, the opening up of time. Having time allows us both to do things for ourselves and to do things for others.
- Taking time – And having time makes it possible to take time. Even as the passage of years and months seems to speed up, we can slow down the moments by taking time to savor the small pleasures of daily life.
To what extent do the virtues of aging just happen as we age and to what extent do they have to be cultivated? I think that aging provides the essential foundation, but that the virtues are a potential that must be cultivated to be fully realized. It seems likely that negative attitudes about aging, both in the culture at large and in individual elders, will make it more difficult to fully actualize that potential. One way I can fight those negative attitudes is by claiming and embracing the virtues of aging.