How often do we think about growing old? And just what do we think of when we do so? I know that here in my busy life in Missoula – I rarely think about it. And when I do, I focus on the circumstances around me that I hope for: a comfortable home, an ability to escape to the mountains in the summer, caring friends and family members around me. I rarely think about my body in physical decline, and even less so my mind.
In a recent blog post, “The Fluidity of Self,” I wrote about the development of our idea of a self, from the historical process described by Charles Taylor (1931 – ) to the existential one taught by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980). In Sartre’s work, we saw the two kinds of “bad faith” that he described: facticity and transcendence.
Bad faith is when we fall into either of these modes of thoughts, either living too much in our past or facticity, or too much in a disconnected future that transcends our current circumstances. The ideal, which both Sartre and Beauvoir agree is very difficult, is living in a balanced awareness of both our facticity and our transcendence. It’s very easy to just settle in to our facticity, listing our labels: son, husband, father, worker, Montanan, etc. To the extent that I forget that these are just labels about my past and present condition and see them as my true self, I will slip into bad faith.
On the other hand, if I forget about these and daydream too much about things completely disconnected: driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the wind in my hair, for instance, I am also living in bad faith. To live in good faith is to remember our past/facticity and still know that there are abundant possibilities ahead of us.
Beauvoir calls these two terms facticity and freedom, but their function and meaning are essentially the same.
On Old Age
Living in good faith with regard to our old age requires that we acknowledge the full extent of what that will mean for us. In the story of the Buddha’s life, an elderly person was one of the “four sights” that shocked the young prince Siddhartha into entering upon a life of renunciation. In the story, Siddhartha encounters an old person for the first time and realizes that he too will one day grow old.
Taken at a surface-level, we might think this is obvious. But at the deeper level it can be profound. Of course we will all grow old, unless we meet an untimely death. But what does that really mean? How many of us have processed this truth deeply?
In America we slowly moved our elders away from us. First for school and work, we often travel far from our parents’ homes. Then, as we start our own families, we rarely find ourselves close to our aging parents except during holidays or other short visits. This shields us from many of the day to day effects of aging, the many mundane difficulties we encounter as we grow older.
Beauvoir’s Old Age
Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) wrote La vieillesse (1970)—translated in the UK as Old Age, and in the US as The Coming of Age (1972) as she entered into her sixties. In her work she noted with sadness the way that we treat the elderly, very often emphasizing their aspects of decline as a way of making ourselves feel superior. We might think of some of the harsh ways people treat elders in general, treating their slowness of thought or movement as stupidity or a liability.
Second, Beauvoir notes some of the systemic causes of our dismissal. She says that capitalism, which drives us to seek out ever new profits, makes aging a problem. As we age, we tend to slow our consumption, no longer buying new houses and cars, often cutting back on a wide range of personal purchases. We are no longer wowed by the latest and greatest gadgets the way that teenagers and young adults are.
The aging also produce less, often retiring to lives of hobbies that produce little or nothing. Economically, this is terrible. And since our society is so driven by economic interests and news, the elderly are often spoken of as a coming expense for the rest of society. To put it in a word: our elderly are treated like a burden. The stereotypes about older people are often worst toward women, emphasizing the loss of capacities and more rarely upholding them as wiser due to age.
Solutions to the malady
Beauvoir argues that we must change our whole society to treat the elderly better. If we live in good faith about our own aging selves, this should be an urgent goal, not something to be left to the next generation.
Principally, we should help our elders to pursue the aims in life that have always given them meaning. These may be religious or family or political. But we must realize the importance of these activities both in our elders and ourselves so that we can plan for our old age. This means preparing for both the physical and mental changes that come with aging.
If we have elders, next time we reach out to them, ask about projects and activities that are making them happy. Ask what they are doing that ties them to their past and makes them most hopeful for the future. These are small things that can make a world of difference. And as we ask these questions of our elders, we also cultivate the habit of asking ourselves.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.