Growing Old With the Lotus Eaters

Blue Lotus

The lotus-eaters of Greek mythology lived on the sandbanks of waters near Carthage and ate the fruit of the lotus. There is still some argument about what was meant by the “lotus” they ate, but the plants were thought to have roots in the underworld and so drew water from the river Lethe. That water had the power to remove all memories.

The lotus-eaters (Lotophagi) who arrived there lived in an idle, paralyzed, trance-like state with no recollection of the past nor concept of the future and with no desire to return to their native lands. Reading about them, it sounded not unlike some older people today living in the strange worlds of senility and in our retirement villages.

Odysseus pulls his men away from the lotus-eaters

You might have discovered the lotus-eaters as I did, in the tales of Odysseus. When he was sailing home, he landed on one of those sandbanks and sent a few men out to explore. The men discovered the Lotophagi, ate their fruit and fell into the same twilight state of idle paralysis. Odysseus had to drag them back to their ship as they pleaded to be left behind.

There certainly were examples in ancient religions of plants and substances being used in rituals and ceremonies: Soma in the Bhagavad Gita, Huoma in pre-Zoroastrian Persia, and the Manna of the Bible which fell from heaven. 

The blue lotus (AKA lily of the Nile) was a psychedelic plant used by ancient Egyptian high priests. It is referenced in the oldest recorded story known to man, the tale of Gilgamesh. Is that the plant Homer’s lotus-eaters were using?

Idleness can be quite addictive even without drugs. I thought a lot about retirement n the years before it became my reality. A lot of my friends are now retired. One thing we seem to have in common is a fear of becoming lotus-eaters – a fear of just becoming mind-numbingly idle.

Now, after a bad work day, the thought of just “doing nothing” is very appealing. I have some lotus-eater kinds of days when I feel like I have done nothing. But when I think about the day, I wasn’t really idle. I was reading and writing and working in the garden and taking a walk and taking some photos and communicating with people online and in person. But I didn’t do what I once defined as “work.”

One of the dangers if you are unprepared for retirement is that you become idle. You need a plan. When a car is idling, it isn’t going anywhere. You need to get in gear and get moving, though even a machine needs to rest and be idle at times.

Maybe that is why I keep so many To Do lists. They remind me that I have things to do. They also remind me in their undoneness of times when I am idle.

I visited someone a few years ago who had newly arrived at a retirement community. there was much of a lotus-eater feel to the place. No one seemed to be doing anything, but no one seemed to be looking for something to do.

Odysseus’ men in an unconscious state, by W. Heath Robinson

Is it apathy? I think about it at times, such as when it’s time to eat and I am hungry but there is nothing I want to eat.  I’ll eat almost anything you put in front of me to fill myself, but I don’t want anything, and I don’t even want to think about it. What if that becomes my attitude to everything?

In my online research, I found the island of Djerba which the legend says is the island of the Lotus-Eaters where Odysseus was stranded on his voyage through the Mediterranean. One of the vacation photos I saw showed a nude woman being misted at a spa and she looked blissed out.

But Odysseus would not recognize the island. I saw a coffeehouse on Djerba where I might sit and chill out, but it is just down the street from the Yasmine Shopping Center. How much of a lotus-eater would I be there drinking a powerful Tunisian coffee? Would I end up walking to the shopping center? Is there a lotus-eater cafe?

Homer set Ulysses’ sailing buddies onto a sandy beach to have them become seduced by un-mindfulness. There is something about the beach that does that. On vacations, my mind often can’t turn off. I’m looking for something to do, to read, to eat or drink, a place to go. But on beaches, I can actually turn off my brain. What is it?  The sound of the ocean, the sand, salty air, warm breeze, the heat of the Sun, women without much clothing?

In his 1833 poem “Song of the Lotos-Eaters,” Alfred Tennyson used this myth to explore our desire to reject the work world for a state of idleness:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep…

It sounds pretty sweet, but I think I would need someone nearby to drag me back to the ship after a time. I can’t help thinking that I have things to do and miles to go before I end my odyssey.

Coming of Age

Algren house Miller.jpg
The small Dunes cottage where Beauvoir summered in Miller Beach, Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan   –  via Wikimedia

How do you keep life from becoming a parody of itself? It is more difficult in a culture that treats aging as a disease. –  Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age

When I hear the term “coming of age,” my first thought is of a young person’s transition from being a child to being an adult and the many novels and films about that period of adolescence. But that is not what is meant by the book title The Coming of Age which is “a study spanning a thousand years and a variety of different nations and cultures to provide a clear and alarming picture of ‘society’s secret shame’ — the separation and distance from our communities that the old must suffer and endure” by Simone de Beauvoir. It was written by Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986) who was a French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist, and feminist activist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, and even though she was not considered one at the time of her death, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory. She asks what do the words elderly, old, and aged really mean? How are they used by society, and how in turn do they define the generation that we are – or once were – taught to respect and love, but instead often reprimand and avoid? As I have crossed into the “senior citizen” category, I pay more attention to how we as a society treat this generation. I noted things earlier as I was caring for my mother and my older sister. I often wondered who was helping some of their fellow seniors who had no family or friends at all or that were nearby or anyone willing to help with things like bills, healthcare, shopping, and all of the everyday life that many of us take for granted. I ended up helping some people in my mom’s facility with forms. Not only are insurance, Social Security, IRS and other forms complicated, many require you to go online and these were people who still only used a wired landline. No smartphone, no computer and no knowledge about how to use those things if they had access to them. Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the way we treat the elderly is a reflection of our society’s values and priorities. It’s not a pleasant reflection.

“Old age is a problem on which all of the failures of society converge. And that is why it is so carefully hidden.”  –  Simone de Beauvoir

“I don’t know, for example, how I will be when I am ninety years old,” said de Beauvoir, when she was 66 in the documentary film, Promenade au pays de la vieillesse (A Walk through the Land of Old Age). Simone did not make it to 90, but she certainly lived long enough to experience aging in the world of the 1980s. As a feminist, de Beauvoir does not ignore the particular problems that women experience as they age, many of which do not affect men in the same ways and to the same degree. I haven’t read her book. I have only read about it, but I certainly agree with her general argument. Aging is often seen as a disease to be fought with surgery and medications and less often treated with care and concern.

Climbing Second Mountain

looking west
Looking west to Second Mountain from a ridge of First Mountain – part of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey

I live between First and Second Mountain of the Watchung Mountains. In this valley, with its small river as a dividing line, I am between two large stages of my life.

There are lots of ways you can divide a lifetime . At 21, I would have said there was my childhood, high school, and college. Now, all three seem to be just one part of my life.

David Brooks has written The Second Mountain and I picked up the book at the library because of that title and where I live. Brooks uses the climb up the first mountain as a mostly self-centered one. I found online descriptions for this part of life as “in search of résumé virtues” and finding “the skills you bring to the marketplace.”

The younger Brooks has written about related topics in his New York Times columns. His earlier book, The Road to Character, examined some thinkers and inspiring leaders trying to find how they built a strong inner character.

I believe most of us feel that we should live a life larger than ourselves. That “road” he wrote about earlier might be the one up Second Mountain. On this second journey, we are looking to lead a more meaningful life. But all around you on the mountain is a self-centered world, so how do you accomplish your goal?

I read that second mountain is not the place for finding and acquiring  résumé virtues, but a time to secure “eulogy virtues.”  These are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.”

Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise which is subtitled “The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” and is described as the stories of some self-centered bourgeois bohemians who were somewhere between “1960s values and 1990s money.” In some ways his books chronicle his own “road to character” journey. Fifteen years after Bobos,  he was a 50-something who was try to find meaning and “save my own soul.”

Before I started reading the book, I read an excerpt online and listened to a sample and I connected immediately to several passages. Here is Brooks on that first mountain:

“Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”

On the second mountain – and not everyone wants to go there or is able to climb it –  your life should move from self-centered to other-centered.

We all know this desire, even if we don’t really desire the same things. On second mountain, you desire things that are truly worth wanting. You lose the desire for things other people tell you to want. Interdependence and not independence. A life of commitment.

Brooks defines four commitments for this life of meaning and purpose. First, is a commitment to a spouse and family. Next is a commitment to a vocation. He also lists commitment to a philosophy or faith. Finally, is a commitment to a community.

Although Brooks looks within, he also looks at others who have lived committed lives.

This might sound like a book for older people, but t really is better read by younger people for its guidance in choosing a partner, vocation, philosophy, and how to begin putting commitments into the climb of first mountain.

Society is probably not going to help your climb the second mountain. Society favors the first mountain’s freedom, individualism, and putting self first.

Brooks says that if you get to the top of that first mountain and are “successful” you may still find yourself unsatisfied. He writes that these people “sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.”

But some people get knocked off first mountain. “Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape.”

And other people have something happen that knocks them off the path if not off the mountain. He writes that “the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan” Where are they? “Whatever the cause, these people are no longer on the mountain. They are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age, by the way, from eight to eighty-five and beyond. It’s never too early or too late to get knocked off your first mountain.”

That passage caught me. As I said, I literally live in a valley and so I wondered if I am also between the first and second mountains of my life.

Writers can take metaphors and analogies too far. Life is not all mountains and valleys. I know that I sometimes still live on that first mountain, but I have also made my way up the second mountain. I suppose I do live oftentimes in the valley between.

Brooks’ “small rebellions” that lead to the second mountain are to rebel against your ego ideal, and to rebel against mainstream culture. I can see my explorations of Buddhism and other spiritual journeys as a way to battle ego. I am not much of a rebel against culture. I haven’t pursued money, power or fame, but some of that is more due to a lack of opportunities than some nobility on my part. I suspect that on the first mountain I would have easily grabbed at all three of those things if I had the chance. I’m not sure that now I would rebel. I truly am living in that valley.

Someone who rebels and alters their life at any age has moved from one mountain to another. The book gives examples from the radical lawyer who gives up a law practice and moves to Tibet or quits a consultant job to teach in an inner-city school. He writes “I have a friend who built a successful business in the Central Valley of California. She still has her business but spends most of her time building preschools and health centers for the people who work in her company. She is on her second mountain.”

I taught for 45 years. It wasn’t inner-city schools but I am very comfortable with the work I did and I truly feel I made a positive impact on my part of the world.

This past week I climbed up my nearby mountain to a hawk watch. I could see from my perch on First Mountain the more rural Second Mountain to the west. And looking east, I could see a more urban landscape.

And looking east from First Mountain, I can see New York City in the distance across the Hudson River.

This is not a spoiler, but I will tell you that toward the end of the book, David Brooks has a kind of epiphany when he is hiking in Aspen. He was in a bad place in his life, coming out of a failed marriage. He pauses in his walking to read a Puritan prayer about the redemptive power of suffering. He says that he felt “the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.”

Some people will find their second mountain through a crisis or religion or a spiritual practice. Some people will find the sacred only when they arrive on second mountain.

I like Brooks’ recounting of a lunch he had with the Dalai Lama. “He didn’t say anything particularly illuminating or profound, but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason.”

There is a reason for the laughter, but it is not apparent to all.

Time Perception

Clock-pendulum
seconds ticking away

Where did the weekend go? I looked here and it was Sunday night. No posts on Friday or Saturday. No drafts. Nothing in the queue.

It was not a overly busy weekend, but I did go out Friday night, and Saturday was an all day film conference. And then today I fixed the pump on the dishwasher (just clogged), went with a friend to a movie, and then had dinner, sat on the couch and looked at my laptop. Here I am.

Something happened to my perception of time this weekend. I have read that fear can make time seem to slow down. Is that a defense mechanism or it just that a fearful situation makes each moment unbearably long.

So would positive emotions make time speed up? Maybe, but stress is a negative emotion and it can speed up our perception of time.

So, I looked for some research and it seems that humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. I mean we our brain is able to process time, and we have some kind of internal body clock.

I found that research often looks at emotion and time perception, but one study I found  has been designed to study the time perception of emotional events. Participants watched three emotional films: one eliciting fear, another sadness, and a neutral control film.

This seems all very clinical. Not at all like what I felt this weekend, but I don’t doubt that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external.

Einstein

The story is told that Albert Einstein’s secretary was often asked tt explain to reporters and others the meaning of his scientific work and Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

That feels like a better explanation, though it doesn’t explain the why of it.

Wikipedia says that “Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone’s own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events. The perceived time interval between two successive events is referred to as perceived duration. Though directly experiencing or understanding another person’s perception of time is not possible, such a perception can be objectively studied and inferred through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the sapient brain, but one that is manipulable and distortable under certain circumstances.”

Ah yes, subjective time and objective time.

Maybe this is more like the question of “Where did the time go?” that hits middle-aged and older adults. Does time pass more quickly as we age? Of course not, but it seems that way and that is a time perception that can lead to regrets.

Another study that focused on this aspect concluded that our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

In simpler terms, the more new memories I built this weekend, the longer the weekend will seem in hindsight.

The author of the study dubbed this phenomenon the Holiday Paradox. Our childhoods and young adult years tend to be filled with more fresh experiences, but as we age our lives become more routine. There are fewer unfamiliar moments. This weekend went fast because it wasn’t filled with fresh experiences.

Is that it? I thought the film conference exposed me to new things. I have never taken apart a dishwasher pump before. Not fresh enough? Or was it that my Friday night to tonight was just crowded with one thing that went to another and I didn’t have time off to process the experiences?

My mother would have said when I was a kid that “Time flies when you’re having fun.” She and Einstein had that in common.

 

Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult

add friend button

I read this post on Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult as You Grow Older and had to stop and consider whether I felt it was true for myself.

Some of the reasons given are pretty depressing.

“As you grow more mature, your morals and standards start to change and solidify. As a young adult, you may have been more flexible and open-minded about some things, but time has worn grooves into your soul.”  Grooves in my soul sounds really bad. Am I less flexible in my views than when I was 22?

I believe my friend-making changed when I stopped being a student and started being an employee. Though I met many more people in my working years than in my student years, the vast majority (probably 90%) of them are better described as acquaintances than friends.

Another article states that “Marriage changes a lot, but kids change everything,” and I would agree with that when it comes to making new friends. Like my working life, getting married and having kids opened up many new vectors to meeting people. Some of them have remained true friends. Most have dropped down on the friend scale. Some people I socialized with a lot when our kids shared mutual activities (school and sports especially), have disappeared from my life now that my children are adults away on their own. Were they really ever friends?  Yes, they were. But friendships, like all relationships, change, evolve, devolve.

The author of that first article says that “Social media is ruining making friends.” I think social media has tried to redefine “friend” (as used on Facebook) to mean someone who we have a very thin virtual relationship with. I have “Facebook friends” that I have never met, never will meet and that I only connect with through an interest. Might we be real life friends if we met in person? Possibly.

A good example is the list of people on Facebook that are listed as my friends because of poetry. A very few of them are people know and see and talk with about poetry (and other topics) regularly. There is a larger group within that list of poets that I have met or at least heard read their poetry in person. I doubt that many of them would recognize me or know my name if we were in a social situation. And there are an even larger group of poetry people who I have never met and will likely never meet in real life. Friends? No.

I prefer when social networks use terms like “follow.” I follow some celebrities on Instagram because I like seeing their images, but we have no friendship at all – and that is fine.

The author of that article is 43, so I have a few decades on her, but I certainly hope this is not true of me.

“Maybe, as we grow older, we just get rusty at making new friends. Think about it. Many of us get married and have children, and for decades of our lives, we see our children as our best friends. No, we don’t tell them this, but we hold this feeling in our hearts, now don’t we… Well, when our children leave the nest, we are left with our mate, or we are left alone. When this happens, we have forgotten how to socialize correctly.”

I haven’t sat down to make a list of who I would consider actual friends versus acquaintances or any other label. It would probably be somewhat painful. I do know that my closest friends tend to be ones I have known for the most years and with whom I still have face-to-face contact, even if that part only happens once a year. I can’t think of any “virtual friend” that would make the Friend list. And that has less to do with me getting older than it has to do with the world getting older.

Old Advice on Getting Old

Galen

In ancient medicine of Greece and Rome, aging was viewed as a disease. As a disease, it was thought that it could be “cured” or perhaps even prevented.

The most prolific of ancient writers on the topic is Aelius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), usually Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Galen did not see aging as a disease. In his treatise Hygiene, we find the only surviving classical study of gerontology which Galen viewed as a natural process.

During the three centuries from Homer to Hippocrates, views of human aging and longevity evolved in a socio-cultural sense. The physicians of that time began to believe that the aging process could be influenced by natural factors, such as environmental influences and lifestyle.

It was radical to think that an individual has any choice in health and aging  when beliefs in the primacy of the supernatural, and that the gods could predestine one’s life. Could you defy the gods by changing your diet?

I don’t expect readers to dig into Galen’s Hygiene , but I found a number of articles about it online and about his views of aging. Some of those views still make sense today.

Galen’s understanding of medicine was influenced by the then-current theory of humorism. The Four Humors were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. That theory goes back to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates.

A more modern term we might attach to Galen’s approach would be to say he thought of ageing holistically. His writing shows that he thought this lifelong process had a number of stages. Three of those stages were crucial to health and a longer life: the first seven years of life, maturity and old age proper.

He also believed that rather than a generalized approach, a person’s aging path is highly individual. There are many possible health outcomes at each stage.

He believed that those first seven years were the basis for a robust old age.

I dipped into a library copy of the biography The Prince of Medicine and learned that Galen’s theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years.

When he wrote Hygiene, he was at the peak of his career, as physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was not totally “modern” in his views. He did adhere to the concept of humours which was based on bodily fluids. He believed in the curative properties of “divinely-inspired” dreams. He developed treatments based on herbs and spices, which he tested on fellow physicians. Some of those would be viewed today as questionable, while some are probably still used.

In his time, there was a religious taboo on the dissection of corpses. Galen studied anatomy through skeletons exposed in flooded cemeteries, and while treating the wounds of gladiators. He was known for some rather gruesome anatomical demonstrations on animals, such as public vivisections of live Barbary macaques (monkeys) to demonstrate the function of nerves.

Galen is thought to have lived to age 80 – a long life in that time. What would be Galen’s “anti-aging” regime?

He advocated walking and moderate running.

He saw health benefits of a simple diet involving gruel (oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice, boiled in water or milk), raw honey, vegetables and fowl.

He suggests as suitable for the elderly, “yellow wines… always choose the thinnest in consistency.”

He was not a proponent of the strong purges and bloodletting of that time, but encouraged gentle massage for kidney and bladder problems.

He would have appreciated the modern approach to preventative

Hygiene became part of the Western medical curriculum by 500 AD. His output was prodigious. He may have produced more work than any author in antiquity, rivaling Augustine of Hippo. In fact, his surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.

It was said that Galen employed twenty scribes to write down his approximately 500 treatises, amounting to some 10 million words. About 3 million words survive today.