Aging is a chance to become who you are

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When you’re young, there are many role models and aspirations. When you’re older, less pressure means more possibilities

Robert Rowland Smith, British philosopher and author of Breakfast with Socrates and AutoBioPhilosophy: an intimate story of what it means to be human

It all started with Lynne Segal’s comment: “The essence of ageism is its repudiations of human frailty and dependence.” This sentence turned into a new thread to follow in the realm of age-based discrimination. I wondered what lay at the root of our struggle in coming to terms with our being finite especially because, as Lynne pointed out, the reverse of the coin is that we all flourish through care. Yet, it is hard to admit and accept to be cared for. It was this chain of thoughts that brought me to knock - metaphorically - at the door of Robert Rowland Smith. 

Robert Smith is a British philosopher and the author of Breakfast with Socrates; The Philosophy of everyday life and AutoBioPhilosophy: an intimate story of what it means to be human. In his latest book, in particular, he recounts his most meaningful life’s experiences - first as a son, then as a partner, professional and parent - to shed some “philosophical light” on some of the most pressing questions of our human condition. He’s well aware, as he pointed out, that there are far more potential answers than the ones he offered, but still I’m more than happy with the ones I received during our conversation.

The thing is that if Robert and I began our chat picking up Lynne’s lead, we ended up with an unexpected conclusion that answered another query I’ve been mulling over. What do we do with the extra time that a longer life expectancy brings along? I told myself that it could not simply translate into “more of the same.” Still, I couldn’t find a “formula” that - with the clarity of a mathematical equation - could explain how to add more life to our years instead of simply adding more years to our life.

Finally, there’s a necessary clarification. As an expert of “Systemic Constellations,” Robert helps individuals and companies to make sense of their journeys and maybe that’s why we ended up exploring some remote corners of the galaxy of aging.

From a philosopher's point of view, why are we so afraid - better, terrified - of our vulnerabilities and try to run away from them?

I think there’s a psycho-analytic take at play. When we enter the world, we’re helpless and, compared with other species, we need several years of protection and care before we can gain our independence. This is our first experience and, for many of us, might also be the last one. When we think about it, then, it’s like as if it activates a pre-sentient consciousness of vulnerability. It’s the evocation of an idea that, because it marked the beginning of our life, translates into being vulnerable in the hands of other people.

How do you explain the fact that in our society weakness promotes discriminatory instead of protective attitudes?

There’s a part of caring that can be very rewarding, while being very challenging, especially when it is 24/7. This is an ongoing debate in the UK, where we are beginning to take the wellbeing of the carer into account. So, on one side, there’s undoubtedly a sense of giving something, but the attitude on the receiver’s part varies. 

While for some people being frail enforces a sense of gratitude, for other the simple act of receiving is problematic. And in many cases, it has a big impact on both sides of the relationships. Think about the older people in their eighties in need of care who have kids in their sixties for whom, as parents, they keep worrying about. 

But there’s also an element that is culturally specific. In Japan, for example, the attitude towards older people is strongly related with the idea of respect for the elders. In West Africa, there’s a deep cult of the ancestors, whereas in the West, we tend to think about care in a more utilitarian way, in terms of a give-and-take economy.

We don't really know what time is and we tend to think about our life in a linear way: stemming from the experience with your book Autobiophilosophy what can you tell us about the narrative we weave about ourselves, our meaning, and therefore our aging process?

My book walks through the most meaningful milestones of life. And it’s true that the majority happens early in life: you begin to walk, to talk, you graduate, loose your virginity, get married and have kids. There is no correspondence for all these changes in the later stages of life. 

Still, we’re well aware of the brain plasticity and, although we tend to separate people in terms of skills, we need to recognize that as we age we get better, we are sharper. So there’s not only wisdom when we age: we get many more skills. Lots of people say we gain a kind of freedom from the good opinions of others. 

When our time gets shorter, it is natural to think about what we want to do and who we want to be. Also, as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott pointed out in their prominent book The 100-year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, we all harbor curiosity and capabilities that we can develop on a personal and relational dimension. The curiosity for the inner world can translate into creative forms of expression and more openness to others.

With a shorter life span and few older people in antiquity, ageism is a contemporary problem. Is it opening new perspectives in the philosophical discourse? 

Philosophically, we can discuss whether quantity is more important than quality and ask what is better. We are so underdeveloped in our thinking about death that we don’t generally venture in this territory. We think that postponing death equals to prolonging life, but it’s just denial and avoidance for one of the most natural events of our life. The existentialists asked how to live a good life and we are now facing the question of how to live a longer life. It does not simply mean to have more of the same.

Nonetheless, we are adding decades to our lives. What is a philosopher's suggestion to frame a longer life in a meaningful way? 

We don’t have role models for when we age and that, under a certain point of view, makes it hard. But it’s also a great opportunity, if you think about it. As teenagers we have role models and aspirations, but when you’re fifty, sixty, seventy and beyond, it is different. There are fewer images of self you can aspire to and this opens to the question: “Who can I still become?” In this regard, Nietzsche came up with his very famous proposition: “Become who you are.” This process never ends. So, when you’re young there’s more pressure to become someone, when you’re older there is less pressure and the absence of role models, in turn, implies more possibilities.