When people write about youth it is often in memoirs, looking back to what is gone. We have a tendency to reduce age to time or to think of age as a function of time. Robert Pogue Harrison, Literature Professor at Stanford University, argues that on reflection, it is more the case that time is a function of, or is grounded in, age.
Aristotle reasoned that time is essentially a measurement of change, and therefore cannot exist without some kind of succession or change. Biological time is therefore a process of change (ageing). Yet there are organisms (animals, plants, bacteria) that do not exhibit evidence of biological ageing (negligible senescence).
Harrison states that we are made up of many different types of ages (e.g., chronological, biological, historical, psychological, institutional, etc.). Our institutional and historical age reflects the fact that each of us is born into a humanly created world with a historical and institutional past, memory, and future, which imprints itself on us.
As an example of sociological age, St Bernard held that since the old should have arrived at wisdom and virtue, a young person, by achieving these, could be old in the ‘true’ sense of the word.
When the economy was based on agriculture, and as most people were at the margin of subsistence, everybody who could work had to work, irrespective of age. Thus the very young and the old were marked out by their common lack of occupation in society.
In french “le troisième age” denotes “old age”, or as in the Sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus: the three-legged age. Peter Laslett in “A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age” argues there is an age before it for those not bound by work, in which there is the opportunity for the enjoyment of culture and recreation; a period of health, often lasting as long as childhood and adolescence together, free from the anxieties of child-care and the pressures of work.
So what is age?
According to Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Research Center in Philadelphia U.S., we ought to be able to detect age by odour. You will be relieved to learn that although elderly people have a discernible underarm odour, younger people consider it to be fairly neutral and not unpleasant. In Japan there is a special word to describe this odour, kareishū.
Many people’s views on age, especially their own, vary from day to day, even from hour to hour. Age is how you feel at a given moment.
Perhaps eternal youth is to see the then and the now not as the same, but as continuous, a series of selves, changed over time, but linked to an underlying self that has always been. As Gertrude Stein succinctly said: “We are always the same age inside.” Seeking new connections, rekindling friendships and looking forward in a positive spirit never gets old.
So what are we oldies to do?
Simone de Beauvoir’s solution of decent ageing: ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.’
S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes give their recipe at the end of The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging. It includes daily vigorous exercise … plenty of fruits, vegetables, fibre, and moderate amounts of low-fat protein; a restful sleep every night; an intellectually rewarding, non-stressful job, or no job at all; daily body massage; sex at least once a day; and a regular indulgence in your favourite vice: chocolate, barbecue ribs, you name it. The frequency of the indulgence can rise with advancing age at a rate of one or two per week for every decade lived – that is, one or two indulgences per day by age 70.
Youth is the spark that you always carry in your heart.