From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!”
From the Bible of course, 2 Kings 2.23, and showing that kids from time immemorial have thought that anyone over 35 is at death’s door and therefore of little value, and that disrespect for the elderly is inherent to the human race. Rather than the bears Elisha called out of the forest to deal with them, those dudes from Bethel would no doubt have benefitted from some 21st century technology, the state-of-the-art ‘ageing suit’ to be precise, tested in hospitals in the north of England to help everyone from porters to medics understand what it is to be someone of great age. Using an elaborate combination of pads, weights, goggles and ear covers, its aim is to induce empathy by mimicking a wide range of age-related problems such poor vision, hearing loss, shuffling and hand tremors that make you drop your cup of tea.
According to the German manufacturers of the ‘Gerontologic Test Suit’, wearing it encourages compassion and is useful for those in the health service inclined to believe old people are just having a laugh. The press has joked that to get the full effect the wearer should also be exposed to a young health worker screaming their first name – and getting it wrong – into their ears and parking them in front of an inane sitcom intent on making jokes about incontinence and the sex lives of the over 70s, then be bombarded with phone calls from call centres.
The reason our culture deifies youth is because it fears old age. Like the bully who is deep down a coward, the derider of the old is trying to flee a fate he or she actually dreads. This site does not deify youth, but celebrates eternal youthfulness as a real possibility that appears on the horizon when we stop fearing the passing of the years.
Financial and physical abuse are the most blatant forms of disrespect, but negative attitudes towards the old are also a form of abuse. Almost all of us have expressed cliché-ed views of older people at some time in our lives – assumptions such as their lives are boring, that they are out of touch, don’t know what the internet is for, only listen to weird band music and laugh at lame, outdated jokes. Few people take the time to relate to them as potential friends, and yet it is easy to ask questions about their lives, their spiritual and political beliefs, how society has changed, whether they feel safe out and if they also felt a moment of shock when they first realised they were the oldest person in the room, something that may already be happening to us. Even if the older person is dependent, including them in decisions and asking for advice (never giving it unsolicited) is a way of treating them with respect and dignity. Disrespect for the old leads to low self-esteem when we get there ourselves. Where you tread, I too am headed.
Something we can do right away is start noticing the people around who are older than we are. Taking an interest in their daily routines and how they contribute to society can be an eye-opener. A good opening question to ask them is what kind of clothes they used to wear when they were young, or how they spent their Sundays. New opportunities often open up to those who no longer have to drag themselves into work every day, and living at a slower pace allows more time for reflection on what is going on in the world, and a sense of perspective about how to live. The regrets of the old are precious nuggets of wisdom we can live by today, and the joys they have can take away our fears, since there are many aspects of renewal after a life spent working or looking after others, when the world opens to us fully in all its splendour. Life often gets better and better. Many people say the best decade of their lives is the one they are currently experiencing.
Although Staying Ageless does not recommend trying out the Gerontologic Test Suit (because of the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy – see Expectations), displaying impatience, disrespect and disdain of those suffering from the problems age can bring can send a poisonous message of fear to our subconscious. Fear of the future does not promote agelessness. Living in the present in an attitude of acceptance of those around us does.
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Age is, of course, a fever chill
that every physicist must fear.
He’s better dead than living still
when once he’s past his thirtieth year.
Paul Dirac, 1933 Nobel Laureate in Physics
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, goes the saying, and the young age of history’s inventors seems to bear this out. The received wisdom is that seminal achievement in society’s great thinkers can only be expected to happen when they are young, raw and enthusiastic. Senility rather than ability is the noun more often associated with the over-65s. However, once again, this is a myth. Only 2-3% of over 65 year-olds are in care due to psychiatric illness, and generally only 10% of those over 75 are in assisted living facilities. This is actually very low, despite the scaremongering in the media about how we are going to provide for an increasingly ageing and debilitated population. Yes, people are living longer, so proportionally more require care, but the great majority of those still alive after 75 continue to live independently. Most of us can think of far more people among our older acquaintances who are still out there than those in a home. Older people still drive (and have fewer accidents than the under 65s, despite that other myth about doddery drivers), still travel and contribute to society in a myriad of ways.
It is this ability to contribute that caught the attention of Benjamin Jones, an economist at Northwestern University, USA. In a paper about the age of inventors, he tracked the trend of age of greatest achievement over history. He found that no great achievements were made before the age of 19 and only 7% before the age of 26. Einstein is famous for saying, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” But in Jones’ study 42% of innovators were in their 30s, 40% in their 40s and 14% in their 50s. The trend is also upwards. The average age of inventors rose by eight years over the course of the 20th century. Jones suggests several reasons for this trend. Researchers spend more years in education, and the figures may be increasing in relative terms simply because people are living longer. It may be the result of the triumph of experience over enthusiastic drive, but the improved health of older people may mean that both ability and effort is sustained until much later.
Bruce Weinberg, a labour economist at Ohio State University says, “The image of the brilliant young scientist who makes critical breakthroughs in science is increasingly outdated. Today the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize-winning work is 48. Very little breakthrough work is done by physicists under 30.”
By 2000 great achievements in chemistry almost never occurred before the age of 40 and in physics only a fifth occurred before this age. Leaving the old thinking behind when quantum theory revolutionised the scientific world no doubt contributed to the edge Einstein and Dirac had over their older colleagues, but these days this is no longer the case.
Youth is not necessary for change. Great ideas, new adventures and innovative thought are available to us at any age. With the advantage of experience under our belts, the older generation is better placed than ever to make its greatest breakthroughs at an age when earlier generations were biding their time waiting for death. That stroke of genius may still lie ahead.
“I’m too old for this stuff,” we say with a laugh when yet another new technological device comes along. And so the digital divide gets broader. New technologies are mainly designed for people under the age of fifty, and it is easy to start thinking we will never truly master this stuff. But is it really so?
In actual fact there is nothing in the older brain to stop us learning new skills.
The problem is that the older we are the more stuff we have knocking around in our brains. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that the brain must maintain a balance between plasticity – the forming of new connections – and stability – maintaining old ones. A study at George Regents University shows that the human brain does not necessarily decrease in its ability to make the strong synaptic connections that allow us to learn as we get older. Rather, as the brain ages, it finds it harder to weaken older memories and solidify new ones. We may be amazed at how much of an old skill we remember – a board game, a sport like skiing – and after all, although young people can find their way around an iPad in nanoseconds, faced with a record player or an old Polaroid camera they might be flummoxed. Actually, apart from the documented evidence that the middle-aged brain is better at processing negative emotions, it is also capable of rewiring itself and in many cases actually demonstrates improved cognitive abilities. In a study published in 2007 in Neurology, older pilots took longer to learn to use the simulators but did a better job than their younger colleagues at achieving their objective: avoiding collisions.
Much of the problem is due to experience of other skills that have come and gone. How much time do we really want to spend on learning how to use a new gadget when we know the skill may be obsolete within a few years? Older people have the perspective on inventions and technological developments that younger people have not had the chance to gain, and we are sceptical about anything new until it has proven itself indispensable. In addition to that, the lives of older people are often far more complex, involving work, care for older parents and for children, and many social and professional responsibilities which mean we must choose carefully how to spend our time. “My son tried to teach me how to use the PlayStation,” said Moira a 48 year old lawyer, “and I think eventually I could have done it. But I just couldn’t be bothered. It didn’t interest me, and anyway, I had to get the dinner on.”
Our children may laugh at our inability to tell the difference between a browser and a search engine, but many of us don’t have the time to learn and to be honest, many of us don’t care.
However, saying we are too old to learn is condemning ourselves to obsolescence. This attitude also comes from resentment that the world is passing us by, and that the skills we honed earlier – shorthand, filing, faxing – are turning out to be useless. The other weird thing about modern technology is that sometimes it breaks down and no one knows why. Why does turning it off and on again work? And even if you get your website back online, how come no one – not even the Indian wizz kids on the chat line! – have the foggiest idea why it crashed in the first place?
Feeling tried and tested skills are outdated when new technology obviously has a mind of its own over which we have no control is why we feel irritation when we suddenly have to change the way we’ve always done things at work because some nerd in jeans with a pony tail who spends hours in his room being fed bacon sandwiches by his mum has rendered a system obsolete.
However, aligning to some degree with the young will have an immediate effect not only on our outlook, but on the preservation of our cognitive skills. It may also have an effect on how fast we age. And some of this new-fangled junk is actually quite useful – those old episodes of Star Trek have come true with the advent of the webcam, which is a great way to talk to our loved ones across the oceans. Learning how to set up a website is now quite straightforward since there are lots of free videos on YouTube that take us through all the steps, without skipping any that might seem obvious to those who grew up with the internet, and the sense of achievement is exhilarating. Within days it becomes second nature.
Music is another area which scores a deep dividing line between the generations. The kind of music we listened to in our teens is closely knit together with our identity. Music is an area which binds people together, and relationships between people of different generations sometimes falter over the kind of music we remember and like. It may be true that there is more difference between the stuff our grandparents used to appreciate and what we jitterbugged and boogied to than between our music and that of the youth today, but we still often think it’s totally awful. “Why do the young listen to so much crap?” people so often say. “At least when I was young there was a tune!” Rap music? Hip hop? Who in their right mind would listen to that? However, if we do ask young people if they know anything modern we might like, chances are they’ll be flattered, nay delighted to give us a whirlwind tour of modern-day pop (though white-knuckle cringing is likely if we try and use their slang). And if we are honest, if we take a minute to absorb the beat, we can perhaps remember the kind of energy and consciousness of youth which causes people of different generations to prefer different music. Remembering this energy is a step towards recapturing it.
The goalposts are not going to stop moving, so we have to consider whether we must move with them if we are not going to align with the elderly and infirm. We often hear people say, “I’m through with travel,” or “Do I really have to try new food?”, but if we think of it as an exercise in staying ageless, it is worth, at least occasionally, taking that step to try something new.
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Archetypes are ideas or symbols that are present in everyone’s mind. They symbolise patterns of behaviour and thought, and have been around ever since we became conscious beings on this earth. According to Plato, archetypal patterns are imprinted on the soul at the time of birth, but the psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that they are separate energy forms that exist in the collective unconscious and which we tap into without realising. For Jung, archetypes form a bridge between science and religion, and between matter and spirit. They influence the way we think, feel, react to events and our value systems. Some mystics believe archetypes even influence the people we attract into our lives and the events we experience. They appear in mythology, literature and works of art. Archetypes are universal, and have both negative and positive faces.
The archetype of the Elder is no exception.
In the male form, it can take the form of either the tyrant or the warrior. The tyrant is aggressive and not open to change. Blinded by his ego, his emotions are repressed. He is not interested in spirituality. The warrior however is both a father figure and a symbol of wisdom. He is successful, brave and capable of deep introspection. He is not afraid to confront his own demons. Which one are we headed for?
In the female form the Elder archetype can take the form of the witch or the priestess. The witch is aware of the forces in this world, but uses them to justify her own ego. She is trapped in her own negative emotions, and prone to feelings of both victimhood and rage at the world for her fate. The priestess on the other hand is deeply intuitive, towards herself and other people’s motives. She tries to understand others and gives advice only when solicited. Her humility leads her to question first herself before blaming others. She radiates wisdom, authority and unconditional love. Which one are we turning into?
Both the warrior and the priestess are aware of their connection to the collective unconscious. This awareness allows them to step outside received ideas and see societal trends for what they are. If we wish to stay ageless it is imperative that we question the assumptions our peers hold towards ageing. Most of us have been programmed from childhood to accept the archetype of the Elder as a weakling, with a declining mind and body, condemned to an ever worsening quality of life, and death around 80. This is, however, an inherited idea; if there are examples of people who do not correspond to this archetype, we tend to dismiss them as exceptional. So-and-so is ‘amazing for her age’ – another might be ‘still able to walk quite far unassisted’ or ‘capable of doing the Times crossword despite being over 90’. These subtle statements bear witness to programming that states being in good health after age ‘X’ (fill in whatever age you expect to go downhill) is generally not the rule, and that therefore we should not be disappointed if we do not “do all our own shopping”, “manage the stairs” or “touch our toes without groaning” once past age X.
Archetypes are powerful tools that can tap into our subconscious for good or for bad. As vectors of the enormous influence of generations of our ancestors, they can linger at the back of our minds for decades and make an appearance in our lives after retirement, or manifest suddenly in our dreams at times of transition. They can aid us in moving onward and upward to more wisdom and achievement, or scupper any attempt we might have made to change for the better, sending us into a downward spiral of helplessness.
Irrespective of our cultural background, we must remain aware of the power of the archetype, and ensure we master its influence, rather than allowing it to control us.
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Near Yangshuo, southern China, there is a hill known as the Mountain of the Moon. It has 800 steps and in summer is an exhausting climb, necessitating several stops along the way. Water is sold by local people to the tourists on the way up. The vendors are mostly elderly people, many are tiny, thin women, and they haul dozens of bottles of heavy water up the steps countless times a day in the searing heat, dangling from a yoke. They not only keep pace with the young tourists they sell to (there are no elderly Westerners on the hike), but often overtake them. Their physiology is no different from ours; what is different is their expectations of their abilities.
Expectations are a powerful feature of our psychology. Far from being mere thoughts about what might happen, sociologists such as Merton and Thomas have shown that expectations lead to behaviours and attitudes that cause the expectations to occur. Whether or not an expectation is based in reality has little or no effect on the outcome, since if someone has convinced themselves that something is true, or will occur, events will follow their conviction to their logical conclusion. The Thomas theorem states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. According to Thomas, our behaviour is often determined by our perception of a situation we are in, and the meaning we ascribe to the situation. A young person with back ache will look for recent activity which may have led to the pain whereas the older person, even if they have engaged in the same activity, is more likely to ascribe the pain to advancing age. Once a person is convinced of something, they will take actions which are affected by their subjective perceptions – in the above case this could lead to a reduction in physical activity, which will then reduce fitness and lead to the corollary of expectations – the self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are many examples of self-fulfilling prophecies in society. A bank run is one, or in interpersonal relationships, a jealous woman who reacts strongly to her partner’s contacts with other women so that eventually he feels so stifled he does indeed stray. A famous example includes a study where teachers were told arbitrarily that random students were “going to blossom”. Oddly, those random students actually ended the year with significant improvements. In economics the life cycle theory shows that consumers pace their spending in accordance with how long they expect to live.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is based on “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1948). To count, a belief must have consequences of a peculiar kind: consequences that make reality conform to the initial belief.
Thomas also stated that any definition of a situation will influence the present. After a series of such definitions, these perceptions gradually influence our mind-set and personality, so that our reality morphs into exactly what we had defined it to be. Is there any aspect of the way we regard our bodies which is causing a self-fulfilling prophecy?
In the new age movement, the power of expectations is known as the law of attraction, a belief that the universe will adjust itself to fit our expectations of the future. Though many have found this to be true, there is no scientific evidence as such. However, there is plenty of evidence for the placebo effect, where expectations that a medicine, however ineffective in reality, will work, leads to an enhancement of the immune system and the curing of disease.
It may seem that when we reach late “middle age”, even if we have achieved our goals, the decline of the body must then be immediately addressed. It is as though we had a ledger in our minds indicating how long we have left. But what if the first 50 years were just a warm-up, and we could then return to the mental set point we had at 25, while maintaining all the knowledge and life experience…in other words, add on another full lifetime starting now? Would this change in attitude actually add those years to our life?
Fake it till you make it is not bad advice, although if we expect to stay in good physical and mental health up to our first century and to live well beyond there is no reason to believe this is fake. For some people this is already happening (see video page).
Life, looked at from a purely biological standpoint, is pointless. We are born, we reproduce, we die. Sometimes we don’t even reproduce. So what is the point of extending life? If we’re not into suicide, isn’t the best thing to let old age have its way and get all that over with so we can go back to the far less taxing business of oblivion?
Of course, for those who believe there is life after death, the whole point of life is a learning, consciousness-expanding exercise. But atheists would say spirituality is the obvious knee-jerk response of all those billions of human beings who cannot cope with pointlessness. Futility is a concept that encompasses lack of importance, absence of purpose and being of no practical use. The Latin root means leaking away. Perhaps Nature went too far in giving us self-awareness. She should have stopped developing our brains at the level of cows, or fish. Then we’d be blissfully happy when alive and blissfully unaware of the concept of futility. Our lives would be sufficient unto themselves.
Feelings of pointlessness affect everyone from time to time, and some people feel it regularly, and are diagnosed with depression. Stress can lead to feeling fed up with life, since we are overwhelmed with things that need doing and seem to have no time to live ourselves. Being on the work treadmill, working as fast as we can just to pay the electricity and food bill, is the most common reason for a sense of pointlessness, combined with struggles in our personal relationships. When life stops being good, it is time to stop and think.
Our small lives may have stopped being enjoyable, but the universe is so full of wondrous possibilities, this does not mean we cannot let some of that wonder in.
Is the life of a sparrow pointless? It is worth something simply because the sparrow is what it is.
Is the life of a bluebell pointless? Of course not, since without beauty the universe would be dark, and that would be pointless.
Are momentary feelings of happiness pointless? No they are not; they are worth living simply because they exist.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Because empty space would be pointless.
Trying to find a point to life is akin to living constantly projecting towards the future, but life is worth living because of what we experience in the present. If that present is unpleasant, we must move ourselves gently to something else. One foot put gently in front of the other, as in a Tai Chi lesson where we must only follow the teacher’s movements without any emotional or mental input, a slow and gentle walk towards a theatre, a park…changing our environment will change the lie in our mind that it is all pointless.
“I felt so down, so depressed at the end of my working day,” said Donna, a single mother, “that I just wanted to throw myself off the railway bridge. I was working so much just to pay the bills for my children’s education that I didn’t have time to have any fun. I couldn’t go on holiday without my children because I had no childcare, and yet desperately needed some down time without them to remember who I was. I was fed up of working outside and inside the home serving everyone else. What about me, what happened to my life, I wailed inside? That day I had signed up for a wine-tasting evening after work in an attempt to get myself to do other things. I did not want to go. I was too tired, too depressed and didn’t want to see other people. But I made myself, and to help put one foot in front of the other I bought myself some chocolate; it helped, lifting my mood just enough to get me to the wine bar.
When I got there, I saw everyone else had come alone too. I began to talk to some of them, and forgot my dark thoughts. The wine expert was fascinating, and we all had a good giggle about how much wine we were putting away. I was astonished when I got home how my mood had changed. To think earlier on I had been contemplating suicide.”
One act – deciding to go to the wine-tasting – changed Donna’s perception. Life was worth living for the experience of tasting French wine with a group of friendly strangers.
And therein lies the truth.
Our grandmothers were sometimes afraid of the telephone. Having grown up in a time when having one was a luxury, being expected to pick up that blasted thing that could suddenly start ringing out of the blue and then talk to it (!) was a source of some degree of stress.
Our mothers wring their hands over email and online forms. Even the phone book is online these days, you can’t even make a decent phone call without having to switch on the computer.
And what about us? For many of us, Facebook, Twitter and all the even newer forms of social media are the equivalent of the phone and computer to the generations before us. The reaction to new ways of doing things is often far from enthusiastic. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we complain, why change things when everything worked so well? Our inner Luddite rails at the world, and just can’t see the point of all this mindless online chatter. And there is a lot of truth in the criticism voiced by the older generation. Doing everything via a screen has distanced the younger generation from the deep satisfaction of reading a physical book, from the hidden joys contained in a shelf at the library, from the wisdom of slowing down and not communicating with anyone for a day, a weekend, a week….
The problem is that if we constantly refuse to learn how to use new methods of social discourse we are aligning ourselves with a period of earth’s history that is on its way out. “I don’t know why they had to change to these irritating digital photocopiers,” a secretary said. “The older ones worked just as well, didn’t need to be programmed, and anyway I’m too old to change.”
However, children resist change too, when it doesn’t suit them, but they are less likely to complain when new ideas are introduced, and the reason is probably simply because they do not have to unlearn several old methods first, unlike adults, so it requires less effort.
Are older adults too old to change then? Is there any truth in the idea that older people should not be expected to learn new things?
Actually, there isn’t. The adult brain is remarkably resilient. It seems to be capable of rewiring itself well into late middle age and beyond, incorporating new and different approaches into decades of experience. Not only does the middle-aged mind maintain many of the abilities of youth, but it also acquires new ones, possessing enduring potential for plasticity according to cognitive neuroscientist Patricia Reuter-Lorenz PhD of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Older adults are also more positive and more able to sort through social situations. Some middle-agers even have improved cognitive abilities.
Researchers suspect that one reason middle-aged people are more resilient is that their brains have learned to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that in younger adults the amygdala, the brain’s emotional ‘nut’, was activated when they looked at upsetting as well as uplifting images. Adults in their middle and upper decades, by contrast, seemed to have the ability to screen out or dampen down negative emotions; their amygdalas lit up when they saw positive images but tended to ignore disturbing ones.
Most of us were brought up with the idea our brains start to die off practically the moment we are born, but this is not true. Neurons continue to grow in the cerebral cortex throughout life. Learning new skills (even something as banal as brushing our teeth with the other hand) can help ‘fix’ these new neurons in the brain, as can education – a degree appears to slow the brain’s ageing process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education – and it is never too late to start educating oneself.
Problems older people encounter such as memory failure turn out to be not due to age but due to the diseases that often arise in later life such as diabetes (twice as likely to have memory problems) and high blood pressure (twice as likely to have areas of brain damage). Maintaining a vigorous exercise programme can help us avoid these medical conditions and thus make full use of the superior minds we develop the longer we stick around on the planet.
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People say that when they lose a loved friend or family member, part of them dies too. Perhaps they don’t realise what they are saying, but in feeling this way they are conditioning themselves to follow in their footsteps. If we were not surrounded by more and more of our acquaintances passing away as our life progresses, the possibility of extended life would etch itself into our cells. Put differently, it is the death of other people that deprives us of the possibility of long life.
We must learn to deal with loss and change if we are to stay ageless. The loss of our past – the familiar buildings that are now gone, the people who once staffed services we use, the relatives we used to meet in summer or New Year – shocks us into thinking we are on our way out too. The subliminal messages our emotions send to us say : if the building is gone, then what am I still doing here?
Feelings of nostalgia and yearning for an earlier period while complaining about the present are the hallmark of the middle-aged and beyond. It hurts us to see the world changing so quickly. But it is only by embracing change, allowing it, and saluting those who pass from this world with a gentle acceptance that we can sit comfortably in each new epoque, and thus allow our lives to flourish in them. Refusing to learn how to use new systems, doggedly doing things the old way is walking along the highway towards infirmity and obsolescence.
Perhaps the greatest challenge comes with the death of a parent. The most likely age of an adult child on the death of a parent is between 45 and 64 years of age. Since we learnt how to do most things from our parents, if they die at a certain age we may feel condemned to do the same. If we exceed their age of death we think we are living on borrowed time. Becoming an adult orphan often coincides with the shock that most people on this earth are now younger than us. How can this be, this was never the case before?! We may conclude the world has become hostile towards us, and that we no longer belong in it. This is relinquishing power over our health and destiny. It is sending a poisonous e-mail to our cells.
This is not about denial. Denial is said to be one of the stages of mourning, but there is no typical response to loss. Dr Kübler-Ross who spoke of the five stages of grief said herself there is no imperative need to pass through each of them, and even less so if we have thought through the meaning of death and the possibility of controlling our lifespan. Instead this is about taking control.
One aspect of the death of a parent that is more often than not suppressed is the feeling of relief, and release. Common though it is, fear that it is disrespectful prevents people from speaking of it openly. Freedom to be ourselves fully is a sensation many bereaved “children” have experienced, which can mean we only fully become an adult in late middle age. With no one to please and no one’s disapproval to fear, we are free to choose the paths that attract us. “When she died,” said Jean of her mother’s death, “her power over me was finally gone. I felt free to be successful at last, and no longer had to fear her envy.”
The secret to living beyond 80 – 90 years is to find a way to reconcile the unresolved hurt of losing the things and people we love.
We are answerable ultimately only towards ourselves. Loss is a part of the process of change and renewal. It never stopped, we only notice it more as we accumulate more years and experience. We need to allow other people their experience of death without taking it personally. This is love without attachment, unconditional love that is not about what we can get from other people. Loss is part of the ebb and flow of the earth’s energy, it is a force for good since it allows new forms and new ideas to emerge. It should never frighten us into feeling our time is past and that our demise is fast approaching. Just as the doctrine of reincarnation has us adopting many guises and roles from one life to another, whoever stays ageless does the same, but within a single lifespan.
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It is sometimes difficult to accept that we have been susceptible to social conditioning, although it is easy to see it in others, particularly in other cultures; the person who mocks Hindus for venerating cows may stand firm declaring his belief in his own one true religion; someone who believes Mediterraneans are warmer and have more intense feelings than those from Northern Europe will be extremely reluctant to accept people are the same everywhere; a parent who has followed the path of higher education will be averse to the suggestion academic study may not ultimately be the best preparation for life. From the famous experiment with Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the sound of a bell originally heard when they were fed, to aversion therapy, desensitization and “flooding” (repeated exposure), conditioning underpins many aspects of how society and psychology works.
As an example of adaptive behaviour, conditioning helps protect an individual from experiences that have harmed them in the past, or prepares them for a future experience such as an exam, a fight or sex. The conditioning occurs irrespective of whether the event is imminent. A conditioned response may be the smell of coffee making us feel alert, a piece of music bringing back intense emotions, a clock indicating it is time for dinner causing hunger to become suddenly acute or the placebo effect when we think we are taking pain killers but are actually consuming sugar. Farmers have used conditioned responses in animals : sheep have been trained to weed vineyards but avoid eating the grapes by feeding them vine leaves and then injecting them with a drug inducing nausea. In a similar experiment wolves were conditioned to avoid eating sheep. In humans, aversion therapy has been used, sometimes controversially, to treat conditions such as alcoholism, violent behaviour, gambling or pedophilia using stimuli such as electric shocks or nausea drugs. Therapy to reverse conditioning is predicated on the idea that behaviour that has been learnt can also be unlearnt.
Accepting we have been conditioned requires some degree of humility, but it is true of all of us, and breaking out of conditioning entails risks for our place in the society we live in, and may jeopardise relationships. However, it is possible with a degree of introspection to question our shells of assumed knowledge, and recognise conditioning for what it is. As young children we are told by the media, our peers, teachers and elders that we need certain things in our lives to be happy. By the time we are adults we believe these things are true and it is devilishly difficult to adopt new beliefs. Even if, for example, we feel happy when we are alone, we are surrounded by partnerships, and the urge to pair up with another in order to be happy, despite the very real divorce rates, rises up in us again and again, day after day. Other examples of conditioning are that owning an expensive car or house is necessary for social status, or that wearing brand names makes you cool (parents will recognise this one), that men should earn more and be more successful than their female partners, that you will catch a cold if you go out with wet hair or that middle-aged men in suits know what they are talking about. Travellers will recognise the amusing experience of coming up against conditioning in other countries : praising a child’s beauty attracts the evil eye in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Greece crossing your legs in church is considered obscene and drinking Pepsi helps digestion and in Moslem cultures women who look directly at men in some cultures receive unwanted sexual attention. The shock in the assembled company if as a foreigner we break with the social conditioning is sometimes so extreme and the condemnation so virulent that it is much easier to quickly adopt the view of the majority, at least while we remain in the culture. Subsequent return to our culture of origin can result in so-called cognitive dissonance, or ‘reverse culture shock’.
If we test our own cultural assumptions we might ask : does reading in a dim light ruin your eyesight? Do hair and nails continue to grow after death? Do we lose most of our heat through our heads?
History is full of debunked medical myths. Before 2002 doctors might have prescribed HRT to protect women against heart disease. Then it was discovered HRT made heart disease worse. In the nineteen sixties a doctor would have blamed the mother’s distant attitude for her child’s autism. In the 1980s doctors and the media used to say saturated fat was bad so avoid butter like the plague. Now there is no evidence it causes heart disease. “The fatwa on sat fat has been a fabulous boon for the sugar and cereal industries,” said one article. Eggs are another example. First ‘go to work on an egg’ – then advice that 5 eggs a week are disastrous for cholesterol, and now evidence that eggs have no effect on cholesterol at all. Statistics seem to indicate that iatrogenic ailments (wrong advice or medication from doctors) are currently the biggest cause of death in the US.
What health assumptions do we have that future generations will discount as quackery?
We usually believe our physical and mental health will decline steadily from middle age and that we will die around 80. What if this was just social conditioning on a massive scale, and future generations will show that this was wrong?
Did we receive an apology about fat, autism, eggs and HRT? No, so don’t hold your breath we will receive one about ageing.
One of the most compelling arguments about the fight to conquer ageing is that it is unnatural. Those who believe this feel that trying to beat nature at its game is not only perverse, but could lead to boredom when life outlives its value, that it brings about social inequity when poor people die younger while the rich and educated find ways of prolonging life and that it exacerbates prejudice against the old by deifying the young and healthy.
In Greek mythology, Tithonus was a beautiful youth and lover of Eos the goddess of the Dawn. Eos asked Zeus to grant him immortality but forgot to request eternal youth, so that Tithonus was condemned to age forever. Eventually Eos hid him in a basket in despair. Endless frailty is not what we are about. Staying ageless means just that – extending a healthy life.
Most people would agree that it is a noble goal to seek to conquer the suffering caused by diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease, stroke and the decline of hearing and vision. Curing these symptoms of ageing is never seen as reprehensible, and yet curing ageing itself is. But there are organisms in Nature that do not age (tortoises, lobsters, hydra, rockfish). Moreover calorie restriction, a natural phenomenon during periods of famine, has been shown to prolong life in many organisms. Lifespan in humans has increased dramatically anyway, and the number of centenarians is climbing steadily without a specific “cure” having ever been announced. In any case no one would be forced to extend their life : if we are in favour of personal choice we must therefore also accept those among us who wish to maximise their lifespan.
Is it arrogant to wish to live longer? Some may claim it is playing God, but if that is true all research into heart disease, cancer and stroke should end now. Would it perpetuate and aggravate social injustice if life extension were to be available to a chosen, wealthy few? There are two arguments against this. Firstly, all medical advances are initially only available to a select few; this is true of vaccines, antibiotics and new medicines. Eventually their use becomes widespread. We do not halt chemotherapy because it is not available to everyone. Pioneers proceed regardless of whether there is world peace or an end to poverty, since progress eventually has spin-offs for all. The internet and mobile phones were invented in the West but now these are widely available in even the poorest nations. In fact overcoming the infirmity of ageing would have economic benefits for all governments who would no longer spend billions of dollars on health care for the elderly. Secondly, it is our belief that medical progress is not the whole story, probably not even the main part of it, and that there is a major spiritual, attitudinal component of seeking agelessness, since it may well involve practising moderation, balancing leisure and work, relaxation and exertion, and directing our emotions and thoughts – something which is available to everyone.
If we were to live completely natural lives, we would not have vaccination, or antibiotics, or any medicine at all. If we were living the natural life, there would be no farming, TV, computers or transport other than by horse. Likewise there would be no contraception, and many women would die in childbirth. Those who did not would give birth without pain relief, and suffer mentally with fear of death at each new pregnancy. Unplanned children would suffer emotionally. There would be no sanitation and cholera would kill thousands every year. Natural selection would reign supreme; there would be no care for the disabled, and those of us who have suffered broken limbs would be permanently maimed.
In the 1918 flu epidemic, the virus was most lethal for those in the prime of life. 99% of deaths were in people under 65. The virus is thought to have caused an overreaction of the immune systems of healthy young adults. In the first 25 weeks Spanish flu killed 25 million people worldwide – a purely natural phenomenon.
Is it ethically reprehensible to wish to end ageing? We would argue it is reprehensible not to end suffering, and if we do not take action, we are all condemned to suffer some symptom of old age. Some authors have argued it is morally wrong to wish to extend life, but as we have been doing precisely that for hundreds of years, according to this argument we are all living immoral lives already.