The Gifts and Grace of Old Age

“Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”
Penelope Lively

The gift of age is evidence of an even greater gift: life.

When he was thirty-three, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman,” a three-stanza poem that captures what we expect old age to be like:1

“In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay; When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.”

Yeats, who lived to be seventy-three, imagined old age to be a place of pain, of solitude, comforted only by memory.

Life brings a settlement into self, surely. Retrenchment of the most necessary kind. As we question our post-death existence, we withdraw a bit from the life that will soon cast us off.

And yet, I’ve found when reading what I call “views from old age” that far from being an ending, a closing, or a silencing, old age can often be the height of expression, expansion, life.

“I am now face to face with dying,” writes neuroscientist and humanist Oliver Sacks “but I am not finished with living.”

Maya Angelou agreed, and in her eighties, she welcomed a march of tomorrows: “Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Marcus Aurelius, a true philosopher king, was the last of Rome’s Pax Romana emperors. He wrote Meditations when he was about fifty-five. It offers penetrating insight into humankind, nature, and our eternal connection to a deeply spiritual universe—what Emerson would call “heavenly worlds” nearly 2,000 years later. Aurelius writes:

Your death will soon be on you: and you are not yet clear-minded, or untroubled, or free from the fear of external harm, or kindly to all people, or convinced that justice of action is the only wisdom.

As well as allowing imperfections, Aurelius urges against trying to make meaningless distinctions during life: “All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time—it will all be the same.”

If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth.

Like Aurelius, Oliver Sacks wrote a series of essays right before his death, which were collected in the slim volume Gratitude. Sacks believed that age changed the cadence of time and delivered unexpected freedom:

I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was forty or sixty. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of lifetime together.

British novelist Penelope Lively—one of my most cherished writers—longed for an unreachable child self and believed that memory anchors us in existence.2

Like Sacks and many others unable to enjoy active activity of an earlier age, Lively found what remained to her at eighty nevertheless provided vigorous comfort:

Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions […]. […] Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind.

On the dual gifts of age, Lively offers this intelligent couplet: “Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”3

A removed position allows empty space necessary to gather thoughts and perspectives. Like taking moments of break and play. From that comes great energy, even vitality.

Twenty years following the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant penned his Memoirs while dying from esophageal cancer. They are widely considered to be the best presidential memoirs ever written, full of insightful, empathetic details. My father gave me a copy years ago, and I’ve in turn given it to so many people I’ve lost count.

The shining moment in the book is the surrender of General Lee and the end of the War. Grant begins the anecdote humbly:

I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly […].

When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and, after shaking hands, took our seats. What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result and was too manly to show it. […] I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly […].

There is no bravado, no ego-boosting, and no circling the victory. Grant wrote in what Marcus Aurelius called a “language that rings true.”

I often wonder how the account might have been different if Grant had written sooner after the War, and when he wasn’t facing his own mortality. Would he have extended the same dignity and grace? Grant died a week after he completed his memoirs.

Sequoia tree "General Grant" estimated age, 1,650 years.
“General Grant” sequoia, estimated to be 1,600 years old, Sequoia National Park, California. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The humility and forgiveness of age stands even more boldly against a backdrop of considerable hardships, like Maya Angelou’s loving and confident Letter to My Daughter, written when she was eighty:

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

The collection is a series of letters to an imagined daughter or, rather, the collective daughters Angelou cultivated over time.4

Young Yeats believed that in old age we’d be surrounded by memories, and those memories alone would bring comfort.

When he was but twenty-eight, Yeats wrote another poem on his suspected view of old age “When You Are Old”:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true.”

How different is this from the reality of Marilynne Robinson, who was veering towards seventy when she wrote the following:

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them.

Robinson, who has written so beautifully in her fiction on the alienation of returning home, carries an open heart to the new and even the future.

Hopefully, my own age won’t pass too quickly (there is so much more to be done!), but if it does—and it will—I intend to keep my eyes forward and extend nothing but grace to those in my past.

“There is always tomorrow.” wrote Maya Angelou when she was 80. “Today I am blessed.”