Academic journal article Generations

A Philosophical Time of Life

Academic journal article Generations

A Philosophical Time of Life

Article excerpt

Is the perspective achieved in old age somehow more true?

My first encounter with the meaning of aging arose one morning as 1, a twenty-somethingyear-old, looked in the mirror and noticed my hairline was receding.

After desperately plying brush and comb to eradicate this affront to my ego, I gave up, deciding that other personally redeeming qualities would have to compensate for hair loss. The second, more profound instance of a confrontation with meaning and aging occurred about ten years later. By then I had made my foray into that so-called "other country," the realm populated by older people, as a volunteer teaching philosophy at a senior center in Olympia, Washington. One of my older friends and favorite students was a petite, red-headed woman named-Hildegard.

I remember the morning we sat across from one another at her kitchen table. Hildegard was telling me about her struggles with the aftereffects of a stroke. A dynamo of physical and intellectual energy, Hildegard was the person I had selected as one of my role models for growing old. Now in her late 70s, she continued to work for children's health, world peace, and reh gious tolerance. She seemed to have achieved that remarkable disposition described by Erik Erikson (1994-) as "informed and detached concern with life in the face of death itself." Hildegard, enthusiastic and dedicated, expressed passionate concern for the welfare of others but was disinclined to judge or meddle in people's affairs. Her grandchildren loved to vmt her because they could tell her things that would have shocked their parents but drew only a nod or smile from their grandmother. Not a Pollyanna, however, Hildegard invariably responded with the sort of gently asked question that could provoke surprise and reflection in the grandchild.

Though she had bounced back from the stroke, it had taken a toll on Hildegard. She experienced residual weakness on her left side and sometimes had trouble finding the right words in conversation. The stroke had exacerbated an existing visual impairment, making reading frustratingly difficult for this woman who loved books. Commiserating with her, I suggested she might consider books on tape. She nodded. Then she pushed a black and white magazine across the table for me to examine. It was a publication of the Hemlock Society, the group advocating the right to suicide and counseling people on the most humane, least painful methods.

Glancing at the contents, I exclaimed, "You wouldn't really do this?

"If I felt that my quality of life were no longer acceptable," she replied, "then, yes, I would seriously consider suicide."

I was stunned. I greatly admired Hildegard's strong character, her free-spirited intellect, and her willfull individuality, but her willingness to consider taking her own life still surprised me.

I didn't know what to say. She carried on as usual and did not seem depressed. But I felt deficient. Wasn't there some tenant of faith, some credo or traditional belief to which I could appeal to persuade her that suicide was wrong, or simply unfair to her friends; and family, who would be saddened not to continue to share her company? In the face of her claim to autonomy, I lacked the conviction that some overarching moral order made Hildegard's suicide impermissible. Also, I felt threatened. After several years of teaching people a generation or more ahead of me, I had arrived at the view that old age is a philosophical time of life -that from the perspective of a long lifetime, looking back dispassionately through lenses shaped and polished by experience, you could assess life's true meaning. Now Hildegard presented an unsettling thought. Perhaps, if you could no longer engage in the activities that made life worthwhile, you might decide there wasn't sufficient reason to go on living. Perhaps Hildegard simply felt that she had had enough life and was unafraid to declare her own curtain call. …

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