Aging Thoughtfully: Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore on Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret
Aging Thoughtfully; Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret is a new book by Martha Nussbaum and Saul Levmore that thoughtfully explores what Robert Browning called “the last of life for which the first was made.” As we approach our sixth, seventh, and eighth decades, how do we think about what we have learned, what we still want to do, what we no longer want to do, what our legacies will be, how we want to die?
The two law professors draw on books, movies, philosophy, economics, and opera and the book is filled with insights about the ways we find meaning and connection as we think about the past and as we make decisions about the future. In an interview, they answered questions about late-life romance, growing old with grace, and making end of life decisions.
Do you have a favorite example of growing older?
SL: Warren Buffett has grown old with such grace and openness to new ideas.
MN: A common weakness of aging is that people exaggerate their prior defects, being less constrained by how other see them: the excessively talkative becomes insufferably so, the narcissist becomes virtually psychopathic, the nasty and inconsiderate more inconsiderate still. I love it when people really learn something and become better. My late colleague Bernie Melzer, who apparently used to be pretty tough and nasty in his youth, was so graceful, serene, and gentle as he aged. He listened to others more, and tried to understand his own past (as the youngest prosecutor at Nuremberg) in a way he had not done before.
How should we ask and who should we ask, as you suggest Atticus ask of Cicero, for an outside assessment of whether we are still personally and professionally able to perform?
SL: One good way is as a joint activity. We choose someone about our age and accept the fact that one of us is likely to lose it and do danger before the other. Another often more appropriate method is to find a person who is much younger but who also thinks about aging. You want someone whom you will not think is telling you to step down because he or she gains from it.
MN: I think trust is so rare and so important. Basically, you look for a true friend, and that’s not such an easy thing to find. Cicero’s letters show such a long-lasting friendship, with a trust that came from shared activities, interesting differences, but also gossip, teasing, and a depth of commitment that’s rare.
In dealing with regret, how do you know when to try to make amends, do what was undone, or just let go?
SL: As I age I find that serious apologies are more valuable. I try not to explain the reason for my error — as that often sounds like justification rather than apology — but simply say that I understand the wrong.I think an apology is often for oneself as much as it is for the listener.
MN: I think it’s crucial not to believe that apology takes the place of getting on with life and making it better going forward. It’s easy to wallow in guilt, particularly for those of us raised in Judeo-Christian cultures. But guilt is useful only if it changes the future, since it cannot change the past.
You describe “the Scylla of excessive deference to ‘nature’ and the Charybdis of obsession with flight from age.” How do we distinguish between vanity and upkeep? When does trying to hold on to youth become counterproductive?
SL: An especially good question. I think for many aging people there comes the point where they are no longer holding on to youth so much as trying to be younger than other people of their age. No 75 year old thinks he is the strongest and fittest, but he might think that he bench-presses in a manner that is enviable for someone of that age. That’s not bad. So if you find yourself really thinking you are like a young person, it is excessive!
MN: Yes, totally. Essentially you need to love yourself and try to be the best that YOU can be, not someone else. But that is difficult, since we all, but perhaps especially women, are held up to rigid social expectations.
Is it true, as the song says, that “love is lovelier the second time around?”
SL: For some people no doubt, but how could that be generally? Imagine a rule that divorce or some other breakup was were required after 30 years. Would not everyone think that was an absurd requirement. People like to choose.
MN: But there is something about love in later life that is special, or at least can be: a degree of self-knowledge that’s not possible before, an understanding of time and change, a sense of humor about oneself.
What is the most constructive way to think about the past? How do we know if we are dwelling on the past for escape rather than understanding?
SL: If we learn things that are slightly unpleasant it is unlikely to be escape. It is such fun to change one’s mind or come to new views! I like the way so many older people have come to embrace same-sex marriage or other arrangements they could not fathom much earlier in life. Those are not escapes, they are wise or perhaps a quest to be young, but in a good way.
MN: It is hard to know how far searching for self-understanding in the past is valuable; I do think it has some value, but I totally agree with Saul that at any rate one must not do this in a way that precludes future-oriented curiosity and new learning.
What can we do now to keep Gen Xers from being “the elderly poor of the future?”
SL: Increase social security, though it is a costly solution.
MN: Learn from the Nordic countries, who certainly have not totally solved this problem, but at least they understand that we’re all in this world together and we must support one another.
How can we care for older people, including those who are impaired, while maintaining their privacy and dignity?
SL. What’s so great about privacy? If someone treats me with respect, I don’t mind that they know my flaws.
MN: I agree, but I do find that as one becomes well-known one is expected to be an open book, and I like to preserve a lot of space for mystery and for true intimacy, which is not compatible with blabbing everything on Facebook. My solution is that I am not on any social media, not even Facebook.
How can we help people maintain control about end of life decisions?
SL: We can ask them to make decisions in advance but of course they might change their mind(s). In the end, it is impossible except to delegate to a person who seems like minded at an earlier stage of life. Thus, some people will delegate to a religious figure but others would know that is the worst thing for them.
MN: Right, it’s the problem of trust again. Our society gives children the default position here, but children often are bad at this, because it is too upsetting.
What gives a gift of assets accumulated over many years the most meaning?
SL: Two ideas. One is that life is so much easier when one is not fearful, and one has the means to relax and do without tension (about money). A gift that provides that security is so valuable, and can be repeated to the next generation. Second, there is trust. If I give a child money with the wish that that child give it to a worthy cause, that shows great faith in the child, a nice gift.
MN: Well, I totally agree, and so for once I am mute.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 31, 2017.