Struggling to be Happy – Even When I’m Old

Margaret Gullan-Whur Ph.D.

Published in The Journal of Applied PhilosophyVol.19 Issue 1 pp. 17-30 2002

See also Wiley Online Library

AbstractMy thesis seeks to reduce what may be a natural human antipathy to ageing and/or the elderly by working with one distinctive and consistently approved feature of some older people. This feature is a bold and cheerful struggle within a self-chosen project. The argument opens by distinguishing short-term gratification from lasting, fulfilling happiness, and showing the link between gratification and dependence. Three kinds of struggle (non-voluntary, part-voluntary and positive) are then outlined and exemplified. Gerontological and anthropological research suggest that attitudes to struggle are fixed early in life, and while in the past they mitigated for or against successful survival, they now influence happiness and coping in later life. I argue that the negative effects of the first two kinds of struggle – which are often misguided, grudging or ‘no-win’ struggles – are responsible for the rigidity, narcissism and resentment disliked in some older people. Self-respect, contrasted with self-righteousness, is shown to accrue only from the positive (voluntary and congenial) struggle that seems at any age to deflect or compensate for depression, disappointment, loneliness and illness

Introduction: the problem and a possible way forward.

Social gerontologists and policymakers are working at fostering an informal ‘contract between the generations’ i in the hope of minimising hostility to the unprecedentedly high proportion of elderly people now living in the world’s most prosperous countries ii. The ageism of stereotype jokes is affirmed in opinion surveys of attitudes to older peopleiii. However, while ‘Retirement and Senior Volunteer’ Programmes may increase inter- generational contact iv, and putting popcorn in our shoes may simulate some older people’s discomfort in walking v, such empathy-promoting strategies are unlikely to make growing old an attractive prospect. Reminders that we shall one day be old so should live “in the presence of our future selves”vi are also likely to be ineffective since we may remember our young selves, but can scarcely envisage ourselves as old. I believe education or legislation for political correctness may induce better behaviour, but not new beliefs.

Given this negative premise, but retaining the goal of inter-generational goodwill, it might seem sensible to persuade the elderly to desist from such commonly deplored traits as rigidity and thinking they deserve more attention and respect than they get vii. We might, for example, ask them to emulate those feisty veterans who attract admiration from the young by starting new activities. Unfortunately, gerontologists agree that most* older people resist proactive moves involving introspection or change, and that attitudes to life in later years are largely a function of earlier attitudes viii. The feisty it seems, were always feisty. Today’s third-agers also, despite generally robust health and opportunities for learning and leisure, often appear negative and resentful ix. Many retirees of all incomes across a now forty-year age-span tend to believe that other nations have better health and pension schemes x, and that pensioners are not intrinsically a burden on tax-payers because the resources needed to keep them all in comfort could be extracted from the defence budget without leaving a dent xi. Ageism is hardening in the face of a probable landslide ‘grey’ vote for any party listening to these demands. “If they succeed in getting their way now”, writes one commentator, “what possible hope do we have when they make up almost half the population?”xii.

Given these polarised stances, entente between the generations looks remote. Research has led me, however, to build on the view of gerontologists that attitudes to life are fixed early, and that the attitudes most likely to ensure happiness in later life are flexibility, self-respect, persevering with a personal project and knowing the difference between illness and ageing xiii. The longer these attitudes have been in place, it seems, the happier an individual at any age.

But they are not on that account essentially youthful attitudes. The young who admire exuberant older people are not, as some researchers suggest, patronising them with subtle ageism xiv. Those older people express sincerely coveted qualities. I shall argue that there is an ancient but now poorly recognised human equation of happiness with positive struggle, and that bringing this equation into recognition may contribute to inter-generational goodwill.

1. Two kinds of happiness.

I take happiness to be whatever confers well-being and good spirits. A first step in flexibility is recognising its subjectivity and diversity, and letting others be happy as they will.

We can, however, make a prime generic distinction between lasting, fulfilling happiness and short-term happiness or instant gratification. The former is usually preferred, but the latter is more often pursued because it is more easily acquired. Instant gratification undoubtedly contributes to survival and happiness; we all need food, sensory pleasure and occasional quick-fix fun. But the happiness of consuming or indulging lasts only as long as appetite remains sated. In infancy and truly dependent old age we are prone to orality, literally a continuous need for assurance of food, but manifesting as a dominant “Feed me!” narcissism [16]. This concept is extended by empirical evidence indicating that anyone who is not an infant, insane or an adult in terminal decline, but for whom repeated acts of consumption or gratification entirely constitute happiness, acts under some similar form of dependency compulsion. Craving wealth, for example, has been found to produce brain activity similar to that of a cocaine addict who has just taken the drug.xv If and when reflection intrudes on such compulsive states there may be awareness that the happiness they bring is fleeting, or not happiness at all. There may, however, be no perception of underlying cause, which can include peer pressure, a sense of neglect, a need to displace stress or inappropriate medical prescription. Among the elderly, much passivity and performance impairment, including sexual lethargy, is taken for fatigue or senility, but is due to drug-induced metabolic slowdown xvi.

People capable of reflection acknowledge that immediate gratification is transient just because it is ‘immediate’, without mediation between desire and act. They appreciate that a more thoughtful pursuit must replace the most obvious means to happiness. Reflection may result in modifying desire, perhaps remaining flexible about what would bring lasting happiness. Reflection marks off an independent agent from a passive consumer.

2. Three kinds of struggle.

Pursuing lasting, fulfilling happiness involves struggle. Any struggle is by definition active, but not all struggles are positive. Many contain negative elements that block positive struggle.

I define positive struggle as wholly voluntary and in tune with the struggler’s nature. Each of these conditions is necessary but not sufficient for the positive struggle I equate with fulfilling happiness, and I now examine them separately.

A non-voluntary strugglemay be enforced by brute oppression or by a life crisis such as illness, redundancy or bereavement At eighteen James Partridge, for example, was looking forward to gap-year travel before entering university when a car fire left him with burns resulting in severe facial distortion. His unsought struggle to cope with self-pity and others’ reactions could have remained non-voluntary. Instead, his will to continue the life he had planned and to “cultivate the art of wearing my new face with pride” xvii saw him graduate within five years, move into high level health-care research, marry, have a family, run a farm, teach, and after twenty years write an inspirational book on “the challenge of facial disfigurement” . Public interest in this led to the launch of his charity ‘Changing Faces’ and, at forty-eight, happiness and confidence shines from his face.

Partridge ’s battle shows that fortitude alone expresses no well-being or good spirits. Only if transcended by positive struggle does it acquire the glow we admire. Ivy, aged eighty, was stopped by the police while driving slowly through fog. The police, offering to guide her safely home, asked if she really needed to be out in such weather. “Of course, she sighed. “I have to see to my mother.” Her sigh could have expressed resentment. The glow of exuberance kicks in only when we learn that she will be off again in the fog to play championship bridge when her centenarian mother is comfortable.

Ivy’s struggle to support her mother’s independence was not necessarily unwilling. An urge to serve may be wholly voluntary and, depending on whether the second condition of being compatible with one’s nature is met, positive struggle. I shall come back to this.

Ivy’s altruism could also have been part-voluntary. This third, grudging kind of struggle is a feature of social life and may, like non-voluntary servitude, give rise over time to a controlling sense of grievance, self-righteousness, depression or resignation. The beaten demeanour of Beryl, for example, still immersed at sixty-seven in the struggle of caring for a large family (including twenty-nine grandchildren living nearby) caught the attention of a consultant geriatrician. xviii Beryl had soldiered on while others in her family took more obvious life-blows. One son was injured in car crash, another drowned. Her husband was enfeebled by a heart attack. Beryl admitted to doing most of the caring. She saw herself as old and tired, and wished she could turn back the clock. Dr Lodwick in effect arranged this, rescuing her from premature ageing by ‘permitting’ her to look after herself, have fun and try some “new tricks”, while eating judiciously instead of snacking and taking medication. It is a mark of Beryl’s estrangement from the lives of more privileged third-agers that she thought computers were children’s toys! But within weeks she was rejuvenated in appearance, going dancing, embarking on the positive struggle of producing poetry on her own second-hand computer – and no longer always available to keep an eye on grandchildren.

That is not to say that a part-voluntary struggle aimed at others’ happiness cannot run alongside a wholly voluntary struggle. What I make central to lasting, fulfilling happiness is the existence of a personal project, involving struggle, voluntarily undertaken primarily to fulfil oneself. The existence of one such struggle in a life makes it possible to recognise one’s other non- or part-voluntary struggles for the self-sacrifice or the folly they are. For example, individuals may come to see that they are still trying to please or defy someone else, perhaps a parent, teacher or boss, even a dead one. Once recognised, options for culling these struggles become clear. However, some people, especially strictly brought-up older people, do not know what a purely personal voluntary struggle feels like, and cannot see that the unquestioned traditions of service and self-denial they live by serve them ill. If they have no compelling vision of an alternative, voluntary struggle they may stay trapped in misguided or no-win struggles that at best give pleasure to others, and at worst are a tragic waste of life. This is not just true of major traumatic ordeals. Minor non-or part-voluntary struggles like having to study detested subjects, or entertain unpleasant relatives, may also be experienced as slavery or imprisonment, and reflection may show that everyone would be happier if they were abandoned. While positive struggle is wholly willing and self-directed its initial inspiration may not, as in Beryl’s case, be one’s own. The celebrated oboist Léon Goossens was manipulated in early childhood by his father, who persuaded others to show his son the instrument in an attractive light. But Léon took up the oboe voluntarily. It became his positive struggle at the point where his father’s machinations ceased. He may have sighed at yet another practice session, but he wanted to practise.

Understanding Léon ‘s lifelong, fulfilling happiness, and seeing how the unhappiness of long-standing grudging service turns into rigidity, resentment, self-righteousness or depression, requires scrutiny of the second condition for positive struggle.

The concept of being in tune with one’s own nature is philosophically problematic. Avner De-Shalit has argued eloquently that nature is value-free and that no appeal can be made to nature to endorse human values.xix I agree entirely, and my thesis of struggling ‘in tune with one’s nature’, being grounded in an animal need to survive, produces amoral conclusions. The concept may also smack unattractively of 1960s psychobabble, and indeed the popular notion of ‘doing your own thing’ followed a post-Darwinian movement in psychology centring on just how much most human beings considered themselves at a remove from nature, and duty-bound to control their natural impulses. The idea of a natural self was, of course, promulgated long before Darwin or the advent of psychology. Galen’s humoural theory assigned ‘temperaments’ to the mixing of natural elements in persons; the word ‘congenial’ was later used to mean ‘in tune with one’s temperament’. Thus mid-twentieth-century psychologists only reminded us that failure to adjust to life-situations “through the particular channels and at the particular speed which nature foresaw for us” lies at the root of disease-producing conflict xx.

While scientific theories of physical well-being have been constantly revised during the past century, this psychological principle has not. Knowing and following one’s own nature is still recommended by all who have to deal with those who do not ‘cope’. For mental well-being, psychologists and gerontologists agree, it is futile to cast around outside yourself for inspiration, or to push against what is in you. Strength and purpose from within are crucial to successful coping strategies in later life xxi. But those who been taught from infancy to do the right thing as decided by others, and to ‘stick things out’, find it hard to see why the self-discipline they have pitted against any inclination to please themselves brings less and less fulfilment. The post-Freudian Erikson held that the “psychosocial identity” experienced when an individual feels “most deeply and intensely active and alive … that this is the real me” is assaulted by external events from childhood until death, and that “old people may argue with themselves and with others about what they have been, or should, or could have been”xxii.

This is not the case with animals, or with members of some relatively recently observed pre-literate human societies, who understand that a place in the pack or tribe must be earned. An alpha wolf may retain his authority until terminal decline in old age stops him holding his ears forward, and is usually brought down only by a failure in active responsibility, such as remaining watchful while the rest of the pack sleeps. A Hottentot woman abandoned in the wild to die accepted her lot, enumerating the things she could no longer do for her family xxiii. Cannibalism of the old in hard winters is also recorded, and in Foner’s view gerontocide may be preferable to such sophisticated measures as restricting medical treatment for people beyond a certain age xxiv. Edging the post-reproductive out of the job market in times of mass unemployment may also equate subtly with killing the old for food. My point is that we may be hard-wired to find ageing loathsome, but to make proactivity in the elderly a mitigating factor – an assurance that survival is possible.

 However, while I think the contorted motivation of humans in prosperous countries where hand-to-mouth survival is rarely an issue makes their lives unnecessarily miserable, I do not propose returning to a state of nature. I do not cry with Walt Whitman, “I think I could turn & live with animals, they are so placid & self-contained … Not one is respectful or unhappy over the whole earth” xxv. Animals who are not brave cower unhappily death releases them. Nor, although we share social characteristics with some animal species, do I think we are just progressed mammals. Our nervous systems are different even from chimpanzees’. Yet Whitman (and Bertrand Russell, who endorses the sentiment above) express a widely held sense that human morality has not brought humankind quite where it wants to be.

W.H. Auden reflects on one tragic outcome of angst-ridden alienation from one’s nature, a neurosis I see as resulting in part from a dwindling need in prosperous countries for proof of fitness to survive:

“To be gifted but not to know how best to make use of one’s gifts, to be highly ambitious but at the same time to feel unworthy, is a dangerous combination which can often end in mental breakdown or suicide” xxvi.

Auden has in mind the respected Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, Dag Hammarsköld. Hammarsköld affirms in his journal that he feels unworthy to pursue any personal ambition, and writes wistfully about suicide as a “pleasure-tinged death instinct (with perhaps an element of narcissistic masochism)”xxvii. His chosen struggle was a religious one, with post-death its desired end-state of happiness. This aspiration was followed some way behind by altruism in this life: “I can realise my individuality by becoming a bridge for others …. ” for the good of others” xxviii. But positive altruism must, as said earlier, be ‘congenial’. Did Hammarsköld realise his natural individuality in any of his roles as intellectual, banker, politician or altruist? On all accounts he found no real happiness before the plane carrying him across Zambia in 1961 plummeted to the ground.

Finding the right struggle is rarely easy. If it were, there would be more lasting, fulfilling happiness than there is. Millions of lives end in self-sacrifice and perceived virtue but without happiness because the right struggle has not been found. However, while a right struggle often eludes, parents who encourage children’s most spontaneous interests give them a good chance of finding the struggle that bests suits them. That is why Erikson chose to work with children, and wrote practically nothing constructive about the old xxix.

3. Positive struggle and self-respect.

Self-respect is considered by many psychologists the single most important quality of mind to nurture for mental and physical health. But those preoccupied with virtue may prefer self-righteousness or confuse it with self-respect. Self-righteousness accrues from part-grudging or uncongenial self-sacrifice and, at any age, results in more bitterness than happiness. Significantly, Hammarsköld aspired to being “a stone in the temple of righteousness”xxx. Self-respect, on the other hand, accrues within a positive struggle centred on expressing one’s self. Natural martyrs, altruists and slaves lack self-righteousness because they do not see their positive struggle as self-sacrifice. They arenot sacrificing their ‘selves’!

Some gerontologists prefer to promote a sense of ‘self-worth’xxxi. I find this term unhelpful given our atavistic perception of worth as manifest fitness to survive. This perception is all too familiar to those with physical abnormalities: Partridge constantly emphasises that facing the public is a fundamental challenge. The elderly, as seen, are also perceived to lack worth if they appear weak or dependent. Yet, while surveys show that most older people desire respect from the young xxxii, many go about getting it by merely asserting ‘seniority’. This counterproductive attitude may have antagonised younger people long before the demise of formal elder-power, even before Aristotle described the old as suspicious, small-minded, cowardly, irritable and “more fond of themselves than is right”xxxiii. Some anthropologists believe respect for the aged in pre-literate societies was always based on fear or self-interest. Gutmann describes how a cynical dismissal of the elder- power that purported to ensure a community’s survival by keeping sacred wisdom and ritual alive occurs today when the young of isolated communities leave for cities and return contemptuous of their culture and its guardians xxxiv. They have been seduced by the possibility of wealth, an aid to survival frequently equated with worth.

 Self-respect is not an assumption of worth, but the result of respecting one’s genuine positive capacities. Partridge advises people with disfigurements to be proactive, and while he thinks rehabilitation should include assertiveness training, stresses that this should be grounded in realistic goal-setting and endeavour xxxv. Positive struggle makes survival glow convincingly.

Some gerontologists advocate ‘self-esteem’ or ‘self-acceptance’. But each of these terms has, like ‘self-worth’, a less secure connection with lasting, fulfilling happiness than self-respect. Self-acceptance can embrace defeatism, passivity and self-loathing. Self-esteem hints at bumptiousness. Spinoza found it necessary to distinguish “legitimate self-esteem”, grounded in self-knowledge, from pride or arrogance xxxvi. Rousseau later marked off “self-respect [that] is a natural feeling which leads every animal to look to its own preservation”, from the egoism that “leads each individual to make more of himself than of any other” xxxvii.

Finally, some gerontologists equate self-respect with a sense of achievement xxxviii. This can mislead by seeming to refer to past struggle. If any aphorism is be captured from my argument it is that positive struggle is struggling happily, and does not come apart from it. Both respect and self-respect have shelf lives; they die when positive struggle dies. We can all recall peaks in our lives when we fulfilled ourselves supremely, but the gerodynamics of continuous ageing ensures that the identity of the person on the peak is soon history, as others, who care little for what we once were, only what we do now, are aware. Erikson thought the old often “doctored” their identities in order to create meaning for their “one and only life cycle”, but that this was inspired by a “love of the ego, not of the self”xxxix, a distinction echoing Rousseau’s contrast between egoism and self-respect. Ego-love struggles to elicit others’ respect. Furchgott writes that to this end many people cling to a former identity, telling new acquaintances what they ‘were’, and sometimes magnifying past glories xl. Where the egotist is wealthy, lip-service may follow, but reinstatement of either respect or self-respect depends on re-hitting the peak or starting a new positive struggle. Studies suggest that depression – a major gerontological concern – is rarer in the elderly who continue to work in some dimension xli. Note, however, that the “many, many hours of unpaid service to family, friends and community”xlii observed by Thane and others and exemplified above by Beryl, engender self-respect only if wholly voluntary and congenial. Positive struggle is doing your thing. An uncongenial struggle that exhausts available energy begets no self-respect at any age, merely unhappiness and frustration.

 Constraining circumstances may make self-respect hard to come by. However, an element of positive struggle produces an element of self-respect. Most people can, therefore, learn what self-respect embedded in positive struggle feels like before settling for self-sacrifice, self-acceptance or self-love. This is, I suggest, an urgent agenda for third-age retirees, many of whom, whether caring for their own aged parents, coping with enforced redundancy or indulging themselves as ‘Woopies’ xliii seem to dream only of future consumption, so encouraging the young to work towards spending half their lives on holiday.

4. Positive struggle, desert and reward.

People concerned with virtue expect reward in accordance with their perceived deserts and, unlike Hammarsköld, usually expect it in this life. And the longer expectation lingers in vain, the stronger is their indignation at seeing honour or material benefit bestowed on those they consider selfish.

All struggle, including positive struggle and altruism, is value-neutral, a notion disavowing Rousseau’s view that self-respect is properly channelled by man into“humanity and virtue”xliv. Self-ishness may benefit the world, or a community, or just the struggler. It may push forward or hold back the human condition, according to human evaluation. Spinoza’s doctrine of conatus, the striving or endeavour of a thing to persist in its being,xlv allows that some people are “conditioned by nature” to strive for their own advantage. Their conatus being determined to no other struggle, this is their right [positive] struggle:

By the right and law of nature I simply mean the rules of each individual thing’s nature, the rules whereby we conceive it as naturally determined to exist and act in a definite way. Fish, for example, are determined by nature to swim, and the large to eat the smaller; so the fish occupy the water, and the larger eat the smaller, with perfect natural right. … Nor do I recognise any difference in this respect between men and other individuals in nature, or between …. the foolish, the mad and the sane: for whatever anything does by the laws of its nature it does with perfect right” xlvi.

Health, social and legal professionals know that the most natural struggle of some self-directed individuals is and may always be self-gratification. They may dispute Spinoza’s view that the anti-social and lawless are “not bad in nature” xlvii, but will concur with him, as with Rawls, that human systems of justice must override nature’s neutral bestowal of right xlviii.

Yet it is not only the existence of anti-social positive struggle that prevents an equation of positive struggle with ‘work ethic’. Thoughtful individuals may also flout rules of virtue or duty during their positive struggle and, while regretting others’ opposition, refuse to compromise. They are also amoral in being neither inspired nor distracted by moral purpose.

The connection between desert and reward is the subject of ongoing philosophical debate, since unless a criterion for desert is set, we assign the meriting of desert and reward subjectively and arbitrarily xlix. No necessary connection exists, either – to the chagrin of the self-righteous – between struggle and merit. For while positive struggle is the most effective kind of struggle it may be relatively effortless, making the most minimal struggle the most apparently meritorious. When, on the other hand, hardship is taken to merit desert, those who have abandoned struggle altogether may be found the most deserving.

Reward conceived as value-neutral has, however, a necessary connection with struggle. Sadly for the virtuous it is again an amoral connection, since the greater the proportion of positive struggle in an individual’s life, the richer the reward. A positive struggle tends to snatch worldly prizes since, qua Léon Goossens, it displays the element of flair inherent to struggling in tune with one’s nature. Private reward is rich too, in that positive strugglers who receive no accolade know even at their lowest moments that they could not be using their time more profitably. This salve to disappointment is one yardstick for discerning a positive struggle.

The amoral incidence of reward may prove tragic for many. For example, a child’s ‘gift’ may eventually be judicially condemned. The father of the murderer and cannibalist Jeffrey Dahmer saw his boy as a future scientist when he began anatomising animals, and encouraged him. The determinism of congenial struggle entails, however, that Dahmer senior was no more answerable for his son’s fulfilment than was Goossens’s father for his son’s oboe virtuosity.

Incorrigibility arising from determinism is another yardstick for positive struggle. People recognise, as Erikson suggested, when someone‘s activity is right for them. They look born to their project. They seldom explain or apologise. Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Archer will probably go to their graves incorrigibly self-pleasing, and forgiven for it because they manifestly survive.

 Human dispositions are not easily changed without neurosurgical or chemical interference. Here, too, is a two-edged sword, since for every successfully treated case of socially unacceptable behaviour many individuals are deprived of any capacity for struggle and condemned to compulsion.

5. Positive struggle and significance.

All struggle expresses significance. Struggle being value-free, its significance is simply the degree of impact of a struggle on the world. Significance impresses according to human evaluation, and is thus arbitrary and ephemeral. Spinoza, Mozart and Copernicus died reviled, but are now considered ‘gifted’. The picture of history is distorted as icons of struggle intrude and fade: Chambers biographical dictionary currently gives the Buddha the same number of column-inches as the Beatles.

Lasting, fulfilling happiness is not grounded in significance as assigned by others, but in self-respect and knowing that the maximum significance of which one is capable is being expressed. Rawls reflects interestingly in A Theory of Justice on why “human beings enjoy the exercise of their realised capacities … and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realised”l . Conversely, awareness that one has no positive struggle generates an unpleasant range of feelings running from regret to despair or denial. Erikson refers to the “disgust” of old age li, which Furchgott suggests is countered by vicarious pride in one’s children, grandchildren, parents, social club or chosen sports team lii.

Those engaged in positive struggle soon wise up to the shallowness of social criteria for significance. They know that some people are, sometimes, inspired by another’s positive struggle. But they know, too, that what catches the eye is risk-taking or boldness; that they might impress the world more if they embezzled, or bathed publicly in baked beans, than did what they do best. They also know that passive people, or those trapped in uncongenial struggle, often resent aspiring individuals, and if forced to observe them at close hand quickly assign any hint of significance to good luck. “The herd … hates those who detach themselves”, writes Nietzsche. However, the indifference of some positive strugglers to petty negativity and public opinion can touch Nietzschean heights of inaccessibility to praise or blame. Unlike self-righteous part-voluntary strugglers, who are naturally sensitive to others’ disapproval since others’ approval instigated their struggle, they choose freedom of action above liking. They may accept a special love that is directed on their essential nature and tolerates or embraces their incorrigible struggle, but it more often happens with older than younger aspirers that, released from past emotional or social pressures into a solitary life of fulfilling happiness, they are able, like Nietzsche’s exceptional man, ”to go it alone“. Nietzsche’s superior individual, who stands out from the herd as much for his independence of thought and contempt for others as his own struggle, who seeks “servants” and “tools” above happiness, and “reaches out beyond personality” wearing a mask to deter those who come too close, may be a role model for few. But we can all benefit from Nietzsche’s view of later-life regret:

“For what does one have to atone most? For one’s modesty, for having failed to listen to one’s most personal requirements; for having mistaken oneself; for having underestimated oneself; for having lost a good ear for one’s instincts: this kind of reverence for oneself revenges itself through every kind of deprivation … One never afterward forgives oneself for this lack of genuine egoism …” liii.

A positive struggle that dominates an individual’s life may impact on the world yet, as Nietzsche’s “over-man” exemplifies, could seem to leave the individual lacking the flexibility needed in later life. John Bennett, an octogenarian emeritus professor, admits he “envies” his sheltered-housing neighbours their new hobbies and activities, and fears that when he stops writing and lecturing he may be seriously disadvantaged. But he adds that for those who “know they are probably in their last decade, the fear is that their bodies will outlast their minds”liv. This is more likely Bennett’s real fear. He will probably not stop working until – or if, for this outcome is not inevitable – the passivity of terminal decline sets in.

Yet only Bennett knows if some inner misgiving is gnawing at the previously incorrigible trajectory of his life work. Awareness of past peaks can at any age undermine positive struggle, but feelings of vulnerability intensify in later life, especially if accompanied by genuine frailty lv, and may erode a lifelong ‘can-do’ confidence. It is here that flexibility, the fine tuning or re-directing of a positive struggle, can turn disappointment into fresh significance.

6. Positive struggle and illness.

Psychologists emphasise that for health and happiness in later life, illness must be distinguished from ageing. Among the myths of old age is the notion that deterioration of the organs and faculties is inevitable and that, if humans do not die earlier from accident, they succumb to an illness called old age. Old age is not an illness. To treat older people at the first sign of illness as if they are in terminal decline is in Bennett’s view ageism at its worst: “The injustice of the stereotypes is … specially hard when they have a temporary health problem. If this succeeds in taking away their sense of their own worth, especially in institutions, they may become the stereotype or be dehumanised.”lvi. Even Callahan, who recommends rationing health care according to age, advocates research in arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease lvii, conditions which cause suffering without killing.

However, the injustice of writing off others’ lives during temporary health problems is not old- ageism. Younger people, even children, may be led to think they are “on a decline towards disability”lviii. Illness is a general human affliction, involving suffering and endurance on many levels, and with greater or lesser hope of recovery. Young people like James Partridge set an example to their elders in flexibility and courage. But there are older fighters, too. At sixty-five Léon Goossens, his mouth smashed in a car accident, fought to regain enough sensitivity in his lips to continue his oboe-playing career. Three years later, against all medical hope, he received rave reviews in New York. The truly old – the over-eighties called by Birren a “sturdy bunch” – frequently cope best by denying their advanced age and, ignoring symptoms of illness, shunning doctors’ surgeries and refusing hospitalisation lix. In all age groups some individuals enjoy poor health as a means to consuming attention, affection or wealth, and it is improbable that anyone growing old with such a mind-set will change. Yet ailments or handicaps that are not totally incapacitating allow new talents to develop. This notion is of little comfort to the young dying, however, and it is with their loss of opportunity in mind that I turn to illness’s most sombre aspect.

Some older people may see a severe or inoperable health predicament as the proper setting for positive altruism. They may acknowledge that prolonged illness with no hope of recovery takes a toll of others’ available energy for positive fulfilment. It is the right of any individual to react to this knowledge as he or she judges fit, just as it is the right of natural consumers to go on consuming. Few of us condemn Lawrence Oates’s fatal foray into the blizzard during Scott’s Antarctic Expedition, made because he knew the frostbite in his feet would hold everyone up, and that diminishing rations would spread further without him. If Oates, in fit prime, chose self-sacrifice, why should someone sure that no peak or congenial project lies ahead not be granted what Bennett calls the “final act of responsible freedom”?lx


No one knows how, in the future, people will in general age. Jung, diverging from the usual opinion that attitudes to life in later years are a function of earlier attitudes, did not think we can predict how any individual will age:

… what in the morning [of life] was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years …. not to be moved by this fundamental fact.”lxi

I have proposed that an urge to survive as a discrete organism lets individuals find the struggle that best promotes their thriving. I have argued that at any age positive struggle is happy struggle, and that this principle could enhance inter-generational empathy. Jung’s view does not unsettle my thesis. People do awaken in old age to lost opportunities or misguided past loyalties, or fail to cope well with the closing of a positive struggle, especially if it was essentially physical. We do not, as seen, always react rationally to our personal gerodynamic. Yet even if we do, the positive struggle of our later lives is unlikely to be precisely the positive struggle of our youth. Goossens predictably retired from orchestral commitments to solo playing and teaching. But Bennett, a theologian, cannot have foreseen that he would contribute in old age to an ageing debate. That may be why we would not wish to live “in the presence of our future selves”, even if we could. We want to think there may always be change, growth, hope and surprise.


i V. BENGTSON and W.A.ACHENBAUM (1993) (eds.) The Changing Contract Across the Generations (New York, Aldine) pp.3, 145. A. WALKER (ed.) (1996) The New Generational Contract (London, University College London Press). On the European Commission’s European Year of Older People and Solidarity Between the Generations (1993) see ALAN WALKER and TONY MALTBY (1997) Ageing Europe: (Rethinking Ageing Series. Buckingham and Philadelphia, Open University Press). The Age Shift – Priorities for Action. (2000) (Executive summary of Foresight’s Ageing Population panel) p.5. (www.

iiAccording to data supplied by the World Bank and the United Nations Population Division for highest Gross National Product per capita and average life expectancy at birth, namely between seventy-six and eighty years. If we call this the ‘western world’ we must think of Japan, which has the largest GNP per capita, and (alone) has a life expectancy of eighty, as situated at the extreme west. (, using data provided by the World Bank (GNP) and The United Nations Population Division (Life Expectancy and Births). The pecking order in this respect appears to be Japan, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Singapore, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Sweden, The United States, France, Iceland, Finland, Belgium, Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel and New Zealand.

iiiSee note 7.

iv(Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme, a part of CSV – Community Service Volunteers) ongoing, initiated by European Year of Older People and Solidarity Between the Generations (1993) op.cit. (237 Pentonville Road, London N1 9NJ, RSVP in USA (800 programmes nationwide; is part of the Corporation for National Service.

vSenior Resource for Understanding the Ageing Process, Department of Old Age Psychiatry (2001) King’s College London. (

viPETER LASLETT (1996, 2nd Edition). A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age. (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson) p. 22.

vii N. KOGAN and FLORENCE C. SKELTON. (1962) Beliefs about “old people”: a comparative study of older and younger samples. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 100, pp.100-101. Attitudes of Young People to Ageing and the Elderly. (1987) (Report No.16, National Council for the Aged, Eire, Dublin) p. 20. PAT THANE (2000) Old age in English history: past experiences, present issues.(Oxford, Oxford University Press) pp.469-72.

*In this paper , unless an exact proportion is quoted , ‘most’ means over 51%, ‘many’ and ‘often’ mean 20-30%, and ‘some’ means fewer than 20-30%

viiiERNEST FURCHGOTT (1999) Ageing and human motivation. (Kluwer Academic Publishers) pp. 205, 286.

ixA distinction is made between the Third Age (50-74) when people usually take part in active, independent life, and a Fourth Age (75 and over) of dependence. The Carnegie Inquiry into Third Age,Life, Work and Livelihood in the Third Age, (1993) (Scotland, Dunfermline, Fife) adds these age boundaries to the seminal work of PETER LASLETT (1987) The emergence of the third age, in Ageing and Society pp.7, 2; (1994) The third age, the fourth age and the future in Ageing and Society pp.14, 3 and Laslett (1996) op.cit. pp.241-253.

xIn Europe, only the Danish and Dutch were satisfied: see Walker and Maltby op.cit. pp.55, 119,122. In U.S.A. the Canadian model of Medicare is envied: see JOHN C. BENNETT (1988)Ethical Aspects of Aging: Justice, Freedom and Responsibility in JAMES. E. THORNTON (ed.) Ethics and Aging (Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press) p. 44, and VICTOR W. MARSHALL et al. in Bengtson and Achenbaum op.cit. p.135.

xiBennett op.cit p.44.

xiiANDREW SULLIVAN (2000) in The Sunday Times News Review (London, 1 October).

xiii EWALD W. BUSSE (1961) Psychoneurotic reactions and defense mechanisms in the aged. In P.H. HOCH and J. ZUBIN Psychopathology of Ageing (New York, Grune & Stratton, Inc.) VERENA TSCHUDIN (1999) Counselling and Older People. (London, Age Concern) p. 18. A.N. SCHWARTZ (1975) An observation on self-esteem as the linchpin of quality of life for the aged, in The Gerontologist 15 pp. 470-472. Bennett, op.cit, pp.41-2,45-6; ALBERT ELLIS (1998) Optimal Ageing: get over getting older. (Chicago, Open Court) p.71. GAIL WILSON (2000) Understanding old age: Critical and global perspectives. (London, Sage) pp. 4-6; Furchgott op.cit. pp.18, 245, 287.

xiv BILL BYTHEWAY, (1995) Ageism. (Buckingham and Philadelphia, Open University Press) pp.6, 41, also citing R. KALISH (1979) The new ageism and the failure models: a polemic. The Gerontologist, 19, 4 pp.398-402.

xvHANS C. BREITER et al. (2001) Functional Imaging of Neural Responses to Expectancy and Experience of Monetary Gains and Losses. (Neuron Vol.30, 619-639).

xvi16. Furchgott pp.63, 91; Senior Resource for Understanding the Ageing Process op.cit.; DAVID T. COURTWRIGHT (1982) Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America before 1940 (Harvard University Press) pp.42ff, 91-5..

xviiJAMES PARTRIDGE (1990) Changing Faces: The Challenge of Facial Disfigurement (Penguin Books) pp.ix-xi. Now A Changing Faces Publication (1994, 1997). 1 & 2 Junction Mews, London W2 1PN, Registered Charity No. 1011222).

xviiiRHYS LODWICK (2000) New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, UK. Executive Producer, ‘Beryl Gets Younger by the Day’ (Carlton Televison, 7.30 p.m. 5 September). Also PETA BEE, ‘How Beryl regained her youth’, London, The Times §2, Health, 5 September 2000, pp.14-15).

xixAVNER DE-SHALIT (1997) Environmentalism for Europe – One Model. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 14, 2, p. 178.

xx H. SELYE (1957) The Stress of Life, (London, Longman) 260.

ERIK H. ERIKSON (1987) A way of looking at things. selected papers from 1930 to 1980. (ed.) Stephen Schlein (New York., London. W.W. Norton.) pp.. 675-6. See also James E. Birren and Candace A. Stacey (1988) Paradigms of Aging: Growth versus Decline in Thornton pp. 67, 69.

xxii Erikson (1987) op.cit. pp.676, 641; ERIK H. ERIKSON (1977) Childhood and Society Revised Edition (St. Alban’s Triad) p.242.

xxiii E.W. SIMMONS (1945) The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (New Haven, Yale University Press) p. 230.

xxivSimmons op.cit. p.83. Foner op.cit. p.115, citing DANIEL CALLAHAN (1995) in D. CALLAHAN, H.J. TER MEULEN RUUD and EVA TOPINKOVÁ (eds) A World Growing Old: the Coming Health Care Challenges. Georgetown University Press, passim.

xxvWALT WHITMAN. (1987) ‘Song of Myself’, §32 in Leaves of Grass (Boston,Small, Maynard & Company) p.54.Quoted by BERTRAND ARTHUR WILLIAM RUSSELL, Earl Russell (1971) The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. (London, George Allen & Unwin) Vol.III, Plate 1. Research in Bavaria and Russia into the social and hierarchical behaviour of wolves is mine.

xxvi Foreword to DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD (1964) Markings. Trans. Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden. (London, Faber and Faber) p. 17.

xxviiHammarskjöld op.cit. p.19.

xxviii Hammarskjöld op.cit. p. 62.

xxix Erikson (1987) op.cit. 675.

xxxHammarskjöld op.cit. p. 62. Views on religion and self-righteousness expressed in this paper are mine. Gerontological opinion on the role of religion as a coping mechanism in later life is mixed: see Furchgott op.cit. pp.206, 256; Walker and Maltby op.cit. pp.23, 27-9; Bennett op.cit. pp.51-2. DAVID O. MOBERG (1968) ‘Religiosity in Old Age’ in BERNICE L.NEUGARTEN (Ed.) Middle Age and Aging. A Reader in Social Psychology. (University of Chicago Press) Ch.55.

xxxi Schwartz op.cit; Bennett op.cit. p.42; Schudin op.cit. p.18; Ellis op.cit p.4 and passim

xxxii Thane op.cit. pp.462, 469, 472. Walker and Maltby op.cit.27-9. Laslett (1996) op.cit. p.251.

xxxiii ARISTOTLE Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. (1991). Translation, Introduction, Annotations and Appendix by George A. Kennedy. New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p.167 (1389b and 1390a).

xxxivGutmann (1997) op.cit. p.201. See also ibid. pp.90, 197, 181-202.. Simmons op.cit. p.126; GUTMANN, DAVID (1987) Reclaimed Powers: Towards a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life New York, Basic Books, 1987, p.164; NANCY FONER (1993) When the Contract Fails: Care For The Elderly in Nonindustrial Countries, in Bengtson and Achenbaum op.cit. pp.90, 102, 106ff.

xxxvPartridge op.cit. pp.64, 70 and passim.

xxxvi SPINOZA (1985) The Collected Works of Spinoza, I (ed. and trans. Edwin Curley.) (Princeton University Press) pp.110-12; Short Treatise [1661-65] 2 VIII.

xxxviiJEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1952) A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [1755] in Social Contract and Discourse (Trans. G.D.H. Cole) (University of Chicago Press) p.344 n.

xxxviii Furchgott, op.cit. p.287

xxxix Erikson (1987) op.cit. p.608, (1977) op.cit. p.241

xl Furchgott op.cit. p.246. Bytheway (1997) op.cit. p.62

xliGutmann (1997) op.cit. pp.198, 207; Busse in Hoch and Zubin op.cit. p.282.

xlii Thane op.cit. pp. 490-491. See also JANET FINCH (1989) Family Obligations and Social Change (Oxford, Polity Press) p.236; Walker and Maltby, op.cit. p.36.

xliiiAcronym popularised by Edwina Currie in 1988 when junior minister at the British Department of Health and Social Security.

xliv Rousseau op.cit. p.203n.

xlv Spinoza op.cit. pp..498-9; Ethics Part 3 Propositions 6, 7.

xlvi SPINOZA (1958) A Theologico-Political Treatise Ch.XVI. in Spinoza: The Political Works. The Tractatus theologio-politicus in part and the Tractatus politicus in full. (Ed. and trans. with int. and notes by A.G. Wernham) (Oxford University Press) p.125

xlvii Ibid. p.127

xlviii Ibid. Ch.V p.93 and Ch. XVI pp.133-147. JOHN RAWLS (1971) A Theory of Justice, (Harvard University Press) p.102.

xlixRawls op.cit. pp.102-4. Criterion of ‘well-being’, HEATHER MILNE (1986) Desert, Effort and Equality in Journal of Applied Philosophy, 3, 2 pp.242-3. For recent debate see LOUIS P.POJMAN and OWEN MACLEOD (Eds.) (1999) What Do We Deserve? (Oxford University Press)

l Rawls op.cit. 426-432.

li[53] Erikson (1987) op.cit. p.262.

lii Furchgott op.cit. p.287.

liiiFRIEDRICH WILHELM NIETZSCHE The Will To Power(1968) (Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. (ed. with commentary by Walter Kaufmann) (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) p.505 (§962); p.157 §275; p.196 (§358); p.43 §804; p.539 §105; p.487 (§918). There are other reasons for social withdrawal or ‘disengagement’ in the elderly, including resistance to the grief of losing yet another link with the past, or an urge towards spirituality.

liv Bennett op.cit. pp.46, 50.

lv Gutmann (1997) op.cit.pp.130-31. Gutmann (1987) op.cit. p.207; JAMES THORNTON Introduction to ethical themes and issues in Thornton op.cit p.5.

lvi Bennett op.cit. p.42.

lviiCallahan op.cit. p.222

lviiiMARGARET MORGENRATH GULLETTE (1997) Declining to Decline, cultural combat and the politics of the midlife. (University of Virginia Press) pp.45-8.

lix JAMES E. BIRREN (1964) The Psychology of Aging. (New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc., Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey) p.286. See also Walker and Maltby op.cit p.90; Laslett (1994) op.cit. p.444. Thane op.cit. pp.462, 466, 486.

lx Bennett op.cit. p.53.

lxi C.G. JUNG. (1933) Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (New York, Harcourt Brace) p.124.


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