Albert Schweitzer’s Advice about Aging

A friend recently quoted a saying from Albert Schweitzer that was especially meaningful to him as he approached his 70th birthday:

The meaning of maturity which we should develop in ourselves is that we should strive always to become simpler, kinder, more honest, more truthful, more peace-loving, more gentle and more compassionate.

 This advice captured my aspirations for the over 65 phase of life eloquently. To me it seems obviously true. But the skeptic in me asks – “Why should these be our goals?” Didn’t Dylan Thomas urge us not to “go gentle into that good night“?

 Here are some of my initial thoughts about Schweitzer’s advice. I hope readers will add their own.

1. I don’t believe in a personal afterlife, but a Pew Foundation study of religious life in America found that 74% do, with 59% believing in hell. For people who believe that after death we will be punished and rewarded in accord with our lives on earth, the last laps of life may be seen as especially influential for our afterlife fate, just as the final years of salary determine the pension level in some retirement schemes!

2. Ever since Horace counseled Romans to “seize the day,” innumerable gurus have advised their contemporaries to cherish the present and even to live each day as if it was our last. These glib clichés tend to go in one ear and out the other unless something makes the words come to life for us. It’s common for people who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal condition to report that – in  Schweitzer’s words – they feel “simpler, kinder, more honest, more truthful, more peace-loving, more gentle and more compassionate.” Passing symbolic birthdays – 65, 70, 75, 80… – is  not unrelated to receiving a terminal diagnosis. The shortened time horizon that comes with age or with illness encourages us to cherish the people we care most about, and, for some, to cherish all living things. As Dr. Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

3. Age (and illness) challenge us to respond to the “diminutions” that come with age. One response is denial and pursuit of eternal youth, as Steve Moffic discussed in his recent post on anti-aging nostrums, and Dan Callahan discerned in some AARP Magazine articles and images. Philip Roth has great sport showing old men trying to act like young bucks. But although “denial” gets a bad rap in psychiatric circles, in its mildest  form – seeing the glass as half full, not half empty – it can serve us well by encouraging the kind of welcoming enthusiasm we may have been lucky enough to have had as children.

4. Some people may be hard-wired to have the temperament Schweitzer urges us to strive for. But I believe that for many, perhaps most, achieving Schweitzer’s vision of maturity takes work. For me, Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium dramatizes this aspect of aging memorably. In the poem, the aging poet (Yeats wrote the poem when he was 60 or 61) starts in a depressive mood:

“This is no country for old men…”

The second stanza opens with a dismal image of age:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…”

But educating the soul isn’t easy. To do it, the poet must sail to “the holy city of Byzantium” where his heart

“…sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal”

is consumed in “God’s holy fire,” transforming the aging poet from the sorry state of being a “tattered coat upon a stick” into a golden bird

“…set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Early in my psychiatry training, a wise clinical supervisor advised me not to be so determinedly cheerful with my depressed patients, but rather to dip into their depressive moods in order to understand them better. I found this hard to do, and eventually came to recognize that in growing up I’d put in a lot of “psychological work” to ward off gloom. When my sons were young they teased me about my “the glass is half full” approach to life, which they called “poptimism.”

Except for those who are suffering from a true depressive illness, responding to the slings and arrows of aging with bitterness is best understood as a choice. It’s not an error that can be corrected by logical argument. As a resident I saw a woman who had lost her parents, husband, and children in the holocaust. She felt that relinquishing her bitterness would mean forgiving the Nazis, and she was determined to accuse them until the day she died. But for me and many others, following Schweitzer’s urging to strive to become “simpler, kinder, more honest, more truthful, more peace-loving, more gentle and more compassionate,” seems like the wise, life-affirming choice to make.

Jim Sabin, M.D., 75, is an organizer of Over 65, a clinical professor of population medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.

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