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The Illusion of Old Age

Category: Museums and Aging
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Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to know in 1862 what science has only recently affirmed: that our minds can stay flexible even as our bodies age. Photo credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash.

One of the lesser-known essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson is on the topic of old age, or rather the illusions surrounding and benefits of advanced years. Curiously, in 1862 he was describing attributes of aging that scientists have since affirmed, primarily that even while the body ages and creaks, the mind in its elasticity is capable of expanding greatly. To make this point, Emerson cites some notes he took during a visit to the home of John Adams in Quincy, Massachusetts, as a teenager. Adams, at ninety, was alert, concise, and quick to recall even the specific ages of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe when they each became presidents. He described his son’s mind as being “very much on the stretch” (one would have hoped so, because during that very visit John Quincy Adams was himself elected president). Emerson recalls the visit to demonstrate his point: that outward appearances often reveal little about the quality of a person’s mind.

It is not youth, Emerson argues, but “discrimination” (in the sense of discernment) that defines acuity, which can have nothing to do with age: “He that can discriminate is the father of his father,” he says, quoting the Indian Vedas. Merlin, he adds, was but a babe found on the riverside when he “fore[told] the fate of bystanders;” Alexander, Shakespeare, Burns, and Byron all created masterpieces when they were young, but they—he cautions—are exceptions to “Nature.” Nature, as it adds it years to our lives, brings experience and perspective often missing in youths, who have an “excess of sensibility, to which every object glitters and attracts” [Emerson’s words, not mine].

Wrinkles and grey hair, Emerson claims, have no bearing at all on the quality of one’s mind. In an early nod to “ageism,” he notes that when in the countryside he hardly ever considers his age, but any visit to a city rudely reminds him of his years, because he finds himself in a sea of youthfulness:

“Age…requires fit surroundings. Age is comely in coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in council-chambers, in courts of justice, and historical societies. Age is becoming in the country. But in the rush and uproar of Broadway, if you look into the faces of the passengers, there is dejection or indignation in the seniors, a certain concealed sense of injury, and the lip made up with a heroic determination not to mind it. Few envy the consideration enjoyed by the oldest inhabitant…The creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous. Life is well enough, but we shall all be glad to get out of it, and they will all be glad to have us.”

“Universal convictions are not to be shaken,” though, says Emerson. “Life and art are cumulative…skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open.”

I highly recommend that colleagues read (or reread) Emerson on old age. As you read it (or at least consider my summary above) think about the folly of ageism and how foolish it is to negatively judge (implicitly or not) a person by their cumulative years and aged appearance, including when considering job applicants. Look a bit deeper into the reality that “life and art are cumulative.” Consider the gifts that age can bring to the workplace, especially when coupled with the youthfulness that predominates.

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