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May 18, 2005

A Narrowing Prudence: free radicals, fresh fruit and other silly things

Posted by Jon Davies

Jon Davies - recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University - takes issue with much faddish advice on growing older. He finds that the retired are becoming one of the largest and most indulged minorities, when in fact, for most pensioners, life has never treated them better. Perhaps the retired, he concludes, have much to learn from the Hindu sages.

At age 46, it seems, a person called Toyah Willcox subjected herself to a facelift. She wrote a book about this - Diary of a Facelift - and amongst other things told the Daily Telegraph that she was going to do it again at age 60 or 70 [Daily Telegraph, March 12th 2005]:

When I'm 60 or 70 I'll definitely be going tighter . . . I like the notoriety of it all it's like sticking two fingers up to the world and saying "f--- you". . .Before I had the op, people treated me like an old woman ... I could see it in their eyes the lack of interest, the irritation. . . Even worse was when strangers saw me from behind, assumed I was in my teens people do because I'm so little and bouncy and then saw me up front, and did this "don't look now" double take. I'm sure that's why I used to get overly aggressive and act sometimes like bloody Boadicea attacking the Romans. Now that my face matches my personality, I feel I can allow myself to be more of a serene person let that femininity, which I've hidden for so long, come out. That's a very empowering feeling, you know.

At a recent Public Lecture, Secrets of Successful Ageing, the Professor of Cardiovascular Research at Newcastle University's Institute of Ageing and Health, told her predominantly grey-haired audience that all over the world there were increasing numbers of people living into their 70s and 80s: "Isn't this wonderful", she urged us to think. Her Power Point presentation introduced us to the necessary accoutrements of this prolonged life: lots of very healthy fruit, five portions being approved of by the government. We saw X-rays of thinning bones, to be avoided, as are things called "free radicals": actuarial tables predicting, at each age, a date, if not a time, of death, to be avoided too. Exercise! Diet! Tai Chi for All! Spinach! And as an exemplar for us all, she showed us a picture of a 100 year-old Sikh gentleman (looking, poor man, more like a tortured pretzel than like Jesse Owens in his prime) doing the New York Marathon. Be like him! Be seen!

Another elderly lady gave a video interview to the Professor (an interview much used, apparently, in the education of medical students), in which her habit of fainting and falling over was held to be unhelpful and problematic because, amongst other things, she did it in the privacy of her own home, thereby frustrating research . . .

Surrounded by Toyah Willcoxes and Professors of Cardiovascular Research, it is not surprising that great clouds of guilt descended upon us all as we realised, incompetent, ill-trained and inconsiderate pensioners as we were, how far below par we had allowed ourselves to fall.

We were, it seems, in danger of, on the one hand, reneging on our right (obligation?) to a full and active life: and, on the other, of being unprepared to live up to our duty to respond when, as the reserve army of the not-employed, we were summoned back to the labour force. (It must surely be one of the most ignored of truths, that the labour force is depleted as much by our absence from it as by the failure of the younger generation to be fruitful). It was not clear what were "Rights" and what were "Obligations" or "Duties", although it was obvious that we ourselves were behaving as badly as King Lear.

Ageing, it seems, is "successful" when its consequences (and purposes) are avoided. Retirement, from being a time of seeing rather than of being seen (being seen being the eternal pre-occupation of the young), a time of sensible pensiveness, becomes "what you've always promised yourself", a life of hectic, grim pleasure and strenuous narcissism, a re-run in retirement of all the appetitive fantasies of our incompetent youth. Like the lovely Toyah, we are meant to think and live looking backwards, not forwards.

Embedded in this view of life is a denial that there is a sequential though uneven decline in our various faculties. Instead, through a determined and self-motivated application to health and diet, and a resolute refusal to think, look or be "old", we can run our lives with all faculties unimpaired through our seventies and eighties, and even later, and then, suddenly, drop down dead Instantaneous Total System Failure! This concept underlies both the expectation that we will continue working long past the "traditional" (i.e. the 20 Century) age of retirement and also the view that retirement, no matter when, is simply a switch into another phase of youth, health and beauty, of immortality. This is a ludicrously tragic view of life, ludicrous in its imagery, tragic in the enormity of its error.

We are, of course, living longer, retiring earlier, and disposing of levels of income and capital unknown even one generation ago. We are also, of course, as liberated from moral and societal restraints as are our young. Like them, we are invited to take, not give. In addition to all the generally available "free" things (NHS, libraries, parks etc), we have age-specific goodies: free heat, free TV, free buses ("off-peak"), cheap trains, free Tai Chi lessons, CLAIT courses, cheap cinema tickets the list, while not endless, is endlessly being added to. In the land of yapping minorities, pensioners have become one of the largest and most indulged minorities, assumed always by politicians and media-luvvies to want more of this and more of that, even though any actual pensioner you talk to will tell you quite plainly that never has life treated them better, and that half of what most of us have would be more than enough. They are also aware, through the messages of their various aches and pains, that the body has a but stuttering competence, and that nothing so delightful and rational as Instantaneous Total System Failure is available.

In Leviticus and Numbers we can find calculations as to the (money) value of older people. The calculations were based upon the value of the work of a slave at various times of life. A drop in the value of a man (from 50 at 20-60 years old, to 15 at 60+, and a woman from 30 to 10 at the same age) was a simple recognition of the decline in physical power that comes, Toyah notwithstanding, with age. The Hebrew Sages equated physical infirmity, and consequently the end of the ability to work, with the cessation of the societal life of an individual. This is of little use to us. Men, for example, who retire at 58 (quite common) will have almost as long to spend in their retirement as they did at work. They will not be physically decrepit.

The ideas of Hindu Sages are perhaps more relevant to us. Hindu scriptures emphasise the sense of a lengthy period of "renunciation", which itself followed a period of withdrawal from the busyness of the material world. In these later phases men and women are expected to devote their time and energies to the more important things of life (including death): and not, like the silly Toyah Willcox and the hapless Sikh, to re-enacting the idiocies of youth. It is worth remembering what Henry Vaughan wrote:

For life if thou livest not well, is the greatest evill: and Death, if thou dyest not ill, is the greatest good.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.


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