Now that medical advances have extended our later years, what is the best way to spend them? asks mid-70s Daniel Klein in a Wall Street Journal article (co-author of a bestselling book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. . ., on the philosophy behind jokes).
He questions why we are still expected to accomplish more, in what Zen Buddhists speak of as “the emptiness of striving.” Why are we extravagantly praised when, as tottering seniors, we complete a marathon, get a college degree, or start a new business? Is the philosophy of never-ending achievements really just a denial of the approaching end of our lives? Are we missing out on a significant and invaluable stage of life? What is so wrong about watching the weather channel and soaking up reality shows if that is what we want to do? Haven’t we earned the right?
I was watching a TV program the other night when some codger looked at the camera and advised us, “Don’t let the ol’ rocking chair getcha!” and there I was, sitting in my rocking chair as I watched—completely content. Stuff your advise, Geezer.
What, Klein asked himself, should a contented and authentic life consist of in those years between retirement and extreme infirmity? To find some inspiration, he gathered a few philosophy books and briefly returned to Greece where he once lived.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
I like that analogy. I see many young guys in their mid-30s in our local fitness center, adrift in life like small rowboats on a threatening ocean while I am securely tied up at the dock. As in the old Shaker song, “‘Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be.”
Epicurus also wrote: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” This philosophy is hardly profound and one that most of us would readily agree with. As in another old song, a scout song, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.”
Klein’s article had an unusually high 125 reader’s comments. As I scanned through them, I was surprised how negative many were. How could anybody criticize such an upbeat and rather obvious philosophy?
Most could not get past the setbacks in their lives. A typical example was a bitter comment that life is fine until “Wall Street robs you of your savings.” Get over it, I would advise, and don’t let it ruin the days you have left. Read my blogs of 9/24/2008, and 8/12/2012, on David Foster Wallace’s commencement address. Setbacks are a part of life. There are no peaks without troughs. As long as you are warm, well-fed, and comfortable you are way ahead of most of humanity, now and throughout history. The rest is only attitude.
(You can see a short, hilarious YouTube video of Daniel Klein and Tom Cathcart, co-authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMsQ04IXKok. I was simply going to copy their jokes here, but they do them vaudeville-style that has to be seen. They are two very funny guys.)