Resistance to Elderhood

To contemplate the late stage of one’s career may seem as inviting as a root canal. What’s there to look forward to but pain, weakness, irrelevance, and decrepitude? Meanwhile, the culture bastes us relentlessly with images of youthful prosperity and vigor. “Forever young” has become the mantra of success. So it’s no wonder that we feel resistance to elderhood from both without and within.

Leonardo Self-Portrait-in-Old-Age
Leonardo

Recently, the New York Times Magazine reported an informal poll that asked subscribers, “If offered the chance to live for 200 years in a youthful body, would you accept?” The results were intriguing: about a third said yes, a third said no, and a third said they would have to think about it. I wondered what would make someone choose one or the other, so I began to ask around. My mother, who just turned 100, said she would certainly not want to live that long, and at 70 I felt the same way myself, no question; so did my oldest friend from grad school, whom I have always considered exceptionally wise. My daughter, at 29, initially said yes but then demurred, reflecting that she did not want to be alive when America and the planet went down in flames. At a party where most of the guests were seniors, people expressed mixed, shifting opinions. Two stylish young attorneys said they had no doubt that living 200 years in a 28-year old body would be great; a middle-aged carpenter said he would have to think about it; a barber in his 70’s said he had had a good life and would welcome whatever came next, although he was not enjoying the slow creep of infirmity; a retired college president, active in foundation work despite a recent heart attack, said it was an attractive idea. A university librarian, nearing retirement, said no way.

I left the party with more light but less clarity. Apparently, the question reveals more about the individual than about the population at large. And, on reflection, it’s purely academic. We know that every species has an allotted span: if you want to live, you have to die; you have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.   But we can still dream, and what does our dream of being forever young have to teach? What can we learn from such an imaginary journey?

hefner
Hefner

I had asked the attorneys what they thought it would be like to have a young person’s body but an old person’s mind or, conversely, what it would feel like to date someone who looked young but felt old. When would they start to feel the disconnect? When would it give them the creeps? I couldn’t shake their confidence that living two centuries in a young body would be enviable and fulfilling. Of course, right now they were doing great both socially and professionally. Why wouldn’t they just want more of the same?

Castro w flag
Castro

And, to be fair, think of what culture serves up as role models for elderhood: silver-haired executives flaunting their sportscars and trophy wives, movie stars freezing their glamor with make-up, personal trainers, and plastic surgery, tycoons still chasing billion-dollar deals, bemedaled generals in palaces or gray-haired dictators in guerilla fatigues. We’re encouraged to believe that a successful life means reaching the top of your game and staying there forever. As if success really could work as a hedge against death.

But life and literature both offer alternative models along with abundant cautionary tales…

On the Threshold: Approaching Elderhood & Retirement

By age 50 you are a survivor. By age 60 you begin to contemplate the end of institutional life. By retirement you are done with the university with all its blandishments, banes, and blessings. Your academic career has reached its limits and borne its fruits; it’s history, and so are you. The question is, what now?

In late career we still experience the perennial, existential anxiety of living in a world of impermanence, flux, and mutability. But to this we now feel a new kind of anxiety: identity loss combined with incipient mortality. Earlier, ambition, achievements, and honors motivated and sustained us. We built programs, developed ideas, published our research, gathered disciples, made enemies, and garnered awards, all with varying degrees of satisfaction. We were supported by an institutional and professional identity. For better or worse, we had both a position and a reputation. But now, we are on our own, with a surfeit of both freedom and time.

Untitled 2William Maxwell, who wrote and edited fiction for the New Yorker, once remarked, “The view after seventy is breathtaking.” On a clear day that may be true. But consider a grad school acquaintance who recently confessed, “If I am no longer a professor at Stanford, what am I?” Another, retired for half a decade, explained that he had begun selling his books. Several of his colleagues were pushing eighty yet still teaching. It was important, he felt, not only to make room for younger scholars, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a new phase of life.   To stay alive, he felt, it was necessary to learn how to be an elder, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of your soul. Otherwise you ran the risk of succumbing to bitterness and sterility.

So we arrive at elderhood in spite of ourselves, facing a breathtaking view yet curiously unsure what to do with it. Maxwell continues: “What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters.”

Fortunately, there is scholarship and learning, which need not end when we exit the classroom. “Books are our grandparents,” says Gary Snyder. Maybe now we’ll learn to read them in a new way. And fortunately, we also have each other to serve as companions and guides. Maxwell’s breathtaking view goes in both directions.

So in the weeks ahead Staying Alive will be posting and inviting posts on elderhood and retirement. This is the last and least appreciated phase in the model of academic careers that we have been exploring. Institutions devote little imagination or resources to it, feeling that elders, being no longer “productive” or active in business as usual, are both obsolete and a burden. Elderhood is not something they want to pay for. The profession, likewise, may honor elders for past achievements but generally wants to hear more about the latest new theory or discovery. And for the person, elderhood feels especially complex, fraught, and ambiguous, attended with ambivalence and anxiety. And yet, if we can learn to see it more clearly, perhaps we’ll enjoy a kind of summit view. Stay tuned.

Retirement as Challenge

By John Knott

To a professor retirement can feel like an open-ended sabbatical, offering the luxury of time to write and travel unconstrained by an academic calendar. At first it was natural and easy to stick to familiar ways, researching, writing, and continuing to teach a course I had recently developed. When the director of The Nature Conservancy in Michigan proposed that I edit a book on the Conservancy’s Michigan preserves, I agreed, after persuading her that it should include essays by writers as well as photographs. This project complemented a book in progress (Imagining the Forest, on the evolution of cultural attitudes toward the forests of the upper Midwest) and gave me insights into the working of the Conservancy and the opportunity to go into the field with biologists and writers. It presented new challenges, including appealing to a general audience and respecting the norms of a large NGO accustomed to working with big business and government as well as scientists, that left no doubt that I had gotten outside the academic bubble.

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Into the Forest with a Seeing Eye (Photo by John Knott)

Working on the Conservancy project, as well as on a book that took me into areas including environmental history and restoration ecology, convinced me that reorienting myself could be more energizing and enjoyable than doing more of what I had in pursuing an academic career. A half dozen years into retirement I was looking for other kinds of challenges and found them mainly in writing personal essays and fragments of a memoir, with the support of an established writing group that provided structure and an audience, and in taking workshops in nature photography. My ultimate audience for writing of the sort I have been doing lately is family, chiefly children and grandchildren, and friends who might appreciate particular essays. I’ve tried to shake off old habits of academic writing and develop a different kind of voice. I’ve learned from my colleagues in the writing group, few of whom have had academic careers, and put together a body of work that my children actually seem to enjoy reading. I’m still learning to be reflective about my experience and to find effective ways of representing it, recognizing that imagination plays with memory as we invent our versions of the truth.

Photography workshops, in my case weeklong affairs run by professionals in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the Smokies, have brought greater challenges. Imagine a group of amateur photographers, some of them highly skilled, roused before dawn each morning to take advantage of the early light and expected to produce several images that can be critiqued by the instructor and the group later that day or the next. You are under pressure to find and compose promising shots, some of which you will process and submit for critiquing. It’s like being a freshman all over again, having to scramble and hoping that your work stands up to scrutiny. With a skilled instructor and supportive fellow students you tend to learn fast. You may even begin to produce images that you are pleased to share and preserve.

I value my connections with my university and with former colleagues and enjoy continuing to do a little teaching, but what really keeps me going is finding new ways of challenging myself. If not now, when?

John Knott

John Knott is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Michigan.  An ecocritic and long-time member of ASLE, he retired in 2006.