“But at my back I always hear….
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…”
The English poet Marvell was actually trying to encourage his girlfriend to move a little faster in their relationship, but the poem applies quite well to life’s larger issues, like how we use our time, from day to day, and that brings up “The Ethics of Aging”
Ethics is a discussion of what one “ought” to do. The ethics of aging is fairly simple. There are a few easy guidelines everyone ought to follow. The tricky part comes in putting them into practice. Everyone ought to be physically active. Physiologists say that bodily organs deteriorate at about the rate of 1% per year, beginning around age thirty. While some degree of deterioration is inevitable, appropriate exercise can condition everything from heart and lungs and brain to bones, muscles and joints. While too much exercise can be as harmful than too little, relatively few people are in danger from too much exercise.
The best exercises for most people of mature years turn out to be walking, bicycling, and swimming. Exercise as a chore is no fun at all, and if you are to persist, you must develop routines that are enjoyable. Walking the same area repeatedly must become a meditation exercise, lest it become boring. Some form of resistance training (weight-lifting) is good for the body: it might save you from a hernia lifting groceries, or some other heavy object, like income tax forms. Evidence shows that that weight-lifting exercises not only ward off osteoporosis, but also may help in preventing heart disease and cancer. You don’t have to join a gym: keep a couple small dumbbells around the house and lift them while watching TV, or waiting for a brilliant insight into the world’s political problems. Another important physical activity is stretching: just standing up and stretching from time to time is good for you, and many books illustrate positions anyone can learn. (“The only thing most people stretch is the truth.”) Stretching does good things for your body, and perhaps, yoga practitioners maintain, for your mind. The beneficial effects of Tai Chi are well documented in the scientific literature.
Everyone “ought” to be mentally active. It’s surprising how much education you can get just from reading the newspapers well. The art of journalism is to popularize big ideas, and the best newspapers and magazines do this very well. Scientific breakthroughs, great philosophic concerns, matters of political urgency, all are thought-provokingly profiled in the popular press. Conference centers, Elderhostels, and institutions of higher learning all present golden opportunities for intellectual stimulation. Books and magazines can be sources of challenging ideas; studies show decreased brain wave activity after two hours of watching television. For most people, the greatest intellectual stimulation comes from conversation, and the people you talk to may do more than you realize to keep your mind sharp. It is not a bad idea to have a conversation partner somewhere who persistently disagrees with you: that keeps you thinking!
Social connections are an important “ought” in terms of aging well. Human beings need other human beings: we need personal contact and touch. We all need to feel we are of some service to others. Families are built-in social devices, but most of us build “voluntary” families of those friends with whom we most closely associate. More than anything else, the social network we establish is what keeps us human. Among the friends whose contacts I value highly are family members, neighbors, students stretching back many years, a wide range of university colleagues, people I exercise with, and others whose perceptions of reality are so different from mine, they might make me doubt my sanity, if I didn’t already have some clear convictions along these lines.
Aging ethically also demands the continuing acquisition of virtues. The older you are, the more likely you are to experience cancer, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses. It is only by developing the appropriate virtues that you have any chance of taking such large challenges in stride. Part of the wonder of being alive is the development of character, which comes by facing and overcoming challenges. Scott Peck once facetiously remarked: “people live longer these days because it takes longer to become virtuous.”
While the body may deteriorate with time, the capacity for achieving a whole range of “excellences” does not diminish. As the poet might have said: “Grow old with me: the most interesting is yet to be....” Aging is an ethical challenge, and all of the virtues you acquire throughout your life may have their most serious challenges in your later years. Aging is something we are all doing, all the time. Doing it well is the real ethical challenge.
“Knowing when to be aggressive, and when to step back and admit defeat, is the better part of valor.” So said a political commentator recently about the situation in Afghanistan. I know nothing of politics or military strategy, but that comment applies to accepting life’s vicissitudes. There is a time to build our resources, and there is a time to relax and let go. The Chinese had it right: there is a yin and yang to things, a time to advance, and a time to accept what comes our way. Learning to go with the flow is one of life’s most challenging lessons.