Author Daniel Klein had a wake-up call when his dentist suggested he get implants as opposed to dentures. They would be more convenient, more attractive and more youthful. And who wouldn’t want to appear more youthful? After giving it some thought though, it appeared that Klein didn’t actually care about putting his best smile forward. Too much time and too much money, he concluded. Not to mention, the unsettling issue of avoiding coming to grips with who he was at this stage of life–a man in his early 70s, who had earned the right to enjoy that age, before he arrived at “old” old age, when it’s likely many decisions might not be left to him at all.
To contemplate his new old age, Klein, a successful TV writer and bestselling author, packed a suitcase of philosophy books–many he hadn’t read since his days as a philosophy major at Harvard—and returned to the Greek island of Hydra, where he had spent time a half-century before. The result of his soujourn there is the entertaining and thought-provoking “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.”
While on the island, Klein spent much of his time reading, especially the works of Epicurus, born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos. Epicurus concerned himself with the question of how to live the best possible life,” especially considering that we only have one of them” (the Greek philosopher didn’t believe in an afterlife).
Klein also spent his time visiting the other old men of the island, comparing their acceptance of growing older (or just plain old) with that of the youth culture in the U.S., where Viagra, breast implants, and numerous other procedures, medications, potions and lotions are available to help us stave off, if not the years, but the appearance of those years.
Though Klein subscribes to the theory of Thomas Merton, who wrote, “take more time, cover less ground,” he acknowledges that the question of “what is the best way to be an old man” is open-ended. Whereas Epicurus’s prescription for happiness in old age is to free oneself from “the prison of everyday affairs and politics,” Klein acknowledges that many old men and women in this country genuinely want to remain involved in the affairs of the day, and even continue to work.
“To be true to oneself, a person needs to make his own decisions about what brings him happiness,” Klein wrote, observing that he himself, in writing this book, clearly thought he still had work to do before reaching the next stage of old age.
Klein concludes by musing on the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, suggesting that no matter what we choose to do in order to live a good old age, we try to remain mindful that we are indeed old…”that this is the last stage of life in which we can be fully conscious, that our time in this stage is limited and constantly diminishing, and that we have extraordinary opportunities in this stage that we never had before and will never have again.”
Thought not designed as a companion piece to Klein’s book, Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere” makes for an interesting and worthwhile addition to the literature of letting go, even if only for minutes a day.
A travel journalist, Iyer has crisscrossed the globe too many times to count, and now makes his home in both California and Japan. At 58, he is more than 15 years younger than Klein, but still, is realizing that the world continues to speed up just as he might be ready to start slowing down.
For Iyer, that doesn’t mean not traveling or writing anymore, but it does mean taking time to take a time-out…whether by going on a retreat, meditating, or simply sitting still in an airplane, immune to his mobile devices, in-flight entertainment, or even sleeping.
“It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that…keep me company twenty-four hours a day,” he writes. “…By going nowhere–by sitting still or letting my mind relax–I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.”
For many of us, Iyer notes, it takes courage to step away when there is so much to do in our daily lives…much of it urgent and necessary. But one doesn’t have to go somewhere to accomplish this, he observed.
“Nowhere has to become somewhere we visit in the corners of our lives by taking a daily run or going fishing or just sitting quietly for thirty minutes every morning (a mere 3 percent of our waking hours),” he writes. “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.”
Whatever age you’re at now, these two books can show you a path worth exploring.