Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Eight

“How to Grow Old,” pages 50-53

Longevity depends on your genetic inheritance, so “choose your ancestors carefully [p. 50].” Russell’s ancestors in the previous few generations tended to be long-lived, though his parents were conspicuous exceptions to this rule. His maternal grandmother was too busy with promoting higher education for women and post-midnight reading of popular science to recognize that she was growing old. Hers is the proper attitude: Russell advocates, as always, broad interests as a antidote for brooding on aging.

Russell skirts the opportunity to endorse healthy living. “I never do anything on the ground that it is good for health, though in actual fact the things I like doing are mostly wholesome [p. 51].”

Two traps present themselves to the unwary elderly. One is the temptation to live in the past, and to think of one’s current mind and emotions as inferior to what once they were. A second temptation is to assume too large a role in the life of the young, to try to annex some of their vitality. Remember that animals lose interest in their offspring once the young ones become self-sufficient.

Those broad interests that help to ease old age should be impersonal, that is, not dependent on the enthusiastic participation of younger family members. You can aid, financially or materially, your children and grandkids, but “you must not expect that they will enjoy your company [p. 52].”

A bitterness in the face of death by the young, for whom an early demise robs them of an expected future, is not untoward. “But in an old man who has known human joys and sorrow, and has achieved whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble [p. 52].” Russell recapitulates some of the ideas he expressed in The Conquest of Happiness, about how broad, impersonal interests connect a person with the stream of life, so that personal death becomes less consequential. “I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that the others will carry on what I can no longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done [p. 53].”

A note at the conclusion of the chapter indicates that this “How to Grow Old” is reprinted from New Hopes for a Changing World, which, coincidentally, is next in line in the Reading Bertrand Russell plan.

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