Old age is a phase of our lives that naturally makes us reflective; do we look back with sadness or pride, are we bitter or cheerful? But not everyone reflects, we also have the “Forever Young Brigade (FYB) who refuse to grow old gracefully and think that reflection is for the “already dead”!
Now in our early 70s we are certainly NOT in the FYB; we haven’t had facelifts, transplants or implants, don’t Cycle, Trek, Climb any more, don’t go dancing or clubbing, don’t have fancy haircuts or wear hoodies and jeans ……… well not often anyway!
This type of reflection was described by Erik Erikson who was a psychologist and existential philosopher, but don’t worry we are not going to write a thesis! One of his most significant pieces of work was to propose a series of life stages we all go through from birth, with the final stage being labelled as “Maturity”. Nothing very significant in that. But …… he postulated that each stage triggered a conflict within us, a tension between two polar opposites, which for Maturity as a stage is the battle between Despair and Ego Integrity. In simple terms Ego Integrity would be having satisfaction with your past and what you have done, and feeling a sense of wholeness. Despair would be having disappointment in oneself and having regrets.
Epicurus the Greek philosopher developed his philosophy of life based on the “attainment of pleasure” and freedom from pain and fear. It was certainly NOT about rampant hedonism and hedonistic pleasures as often stated, because Epicurus advocated living modestly, limiting ones desires and trying to understand the workings of the world; mindfulness maybe? In this respect it is similar to Buddhism in its temperateness and avoidance of excesses which can lead to dissatisfaction. Combining the Epicurean view therefore with Erikson’s Existentialism in old age has opened our own eyes to our own current life stage and specific situation.
Speaking personally we have both had very full and satisfying lives; both highly educated, both with successful and multiple careers, raising two brilliant and well adjusted children, able to retire early, and becoming relatively wealthy through our own efforts. All positive reflection, but a recent project in Nepal over the past 10 years with our own aid organisation has been in danger of swamping these positives with a seemingly large negative. We set out in 2007 with the goal of influencing Nepal Ministry of Education to change its primary education system. Against this goal …… we failed, they completely ignored our research, our results, and shut out our local staff. But over the past 12 months friends and followers have pointed out at some length how we developed 200 schools in Kathmandu, trained 2000 teachers, worked to educate a dozen or so communities of parents, improved the quality of education for around 20,000 underprivileged children! They’re right, we had slipped to the Despair side instead of Ego Integrity, our glass was half empty and we were obsessing about it extremely negatively. This reflection has taken place against the backdrop of our travels, an Epicurean journey as we engaged with different cultures, art, history, architecture and people and it has taught us a lesson we should already have known. Be mindful!
So, we arrive at the gateway to the Epicurean Pinnacle of self-fulfilment through Existentialist Reflection! This is REALLY important because what comes next is “really old” old age, and to have skipped on attaining this fulfilment because of denial as a member of the Forever Young Brigade is to miss out on part of life’s wonderful journey. It’s a warning to everyone, be mindful, live the “here and now” and reflect on the positive aspects of life’s journey you have undertaken.