As the result of a low-grade midlife crisis at age fifty, I became a practicing Stoic. My goals in doing so were pretty basic. I wanted to improve my handling of the minor challenges presented by daily living. Could I, for example, learn not to get upset when I got all the way to my car before realising that I had forgotten my car keys? Could I learn to keep my cool when my computer inexplicably froze up, just as I was coming up on a deadline? I also wanted to prepare myself for some of life’s bigger challenges, like breaking a leg or losing a job. And since I was fifty, it had dawned on me that with some luck, I would live long enough to face the challenges presented by the ageing process.
For the next seventeen years, these challenges remained in the background. Then I turned 67, and all that changed. Over the course of the next year, I got old. Allow me to explain.
My mother said that as a baby, I had nearly died of pneumonia. I not only recovered but enjoyed robust health for the next half century. On my fiftieth birthday, though, my wife said that it was time for me to start getting annual check-ups, so I did. The check-up process turned out to be tedious. When I got to the doctor’s office, I would be given a long health survey to fill out. Had I ever had vascular, spinal or joint replacement surgery? Nope. Was I taking any prescription medications? Nope. Was I a diabetic? No again, and so on for two dozen more questions. After a few years of these check-ups, I had a flash of strategic insight: because the questions were followed by yes-or-no check boxes, and because the boxes lined up vertically, I could fill in the no-boxes with one long vertical line that passed through them. Neat trick.
Sometimes in the waiting room, I would overhear the conversations of other patients. On one occasion, an elderly couple was carefully working their way through the husband’s survey, one question at a time. Many of the questions would trigger a discussion, and as the result, the husband might admit that yes, he had been having rectal problems. I would hear such conversations and wonder what the people in question had done wrong. Had they eaten wrong? Had they failed to exercise? And yes, in having these thoughts, I did feel medically superior.
During the last year, though, my visits to doctors have been anything but routine. I was visiting them not for a check-up but to deal with a specific medical problem. As a result, when I filled out their health survey, I had to take myself off autopilot and actually think before answering the questions they asked, inasmuch as the answer to many of them was now “yes” rather than “no.”
It became clear that my medical life had turned some kind of corner. I now have medical conditions that cannot be expected to remedy themselves with the passage of time, as was formerly the case. I not only have to take prescription medication daily, but my doctor assures me that I am unlikely ever to return to my pill-free lifestyle. I am no longer a spring chicken!
The first sign of getting old was a change in my voice. It had, to be sure, changed when I was a teenager but in subsequent decades had remained stable. It was what I regarded as my voice, the one I assumed would be with me for the rest of my life. After a trip to South America, though, I developed a cough that lasted for a month, and after that, my voice became kind of creaky and gravelly. I went to an ear, nose, and throat doctor who examined my vocal cords and said not to worry. After a year, my voice remains creaky. The creakiness varies from day to day, and varies from hour to hour within a day. I have drawn the conclusion that the mellifluent voice I once had has been supplanted by the voice of an old man.
The second sign that I was getting old was a case of tennis elbow. In my early fifties, I had one – appropriately – as the result of playing lots and lots of tennis. It lasted for a few months and then vanished. Last year, though, I had another case of tennis elbow as a result not of playing tennis but cleaning my garage. I went to the doctor and asked whether there was anything I could do about it. “Give it time,” he responded. “How much time?” I asked. “Six months,” he answered. Surely the doctor was being needlessly pessimistic, I thought, but he instead turned out to be optimistic: my elbow took ten months to heal.
This second case of tennis elbow introduced me to what I have come to call the domino effect of ageing. My tennis elbow meant that I could not do yoga at my accustomed level. Since I expected the elbow to quickly recover, I didn’t switch to a gentler form of yoga. When I finally returned to my yoga class after a ten-month absence, I found myself doing it – well, like an old man. I had lost much of my flexibility, meaning that yogic contortions that previously would have been routine were now impossible.
When you are young, you can bounce back from injuries, but when you are old, even little injuries can end up being just the first of many dominos to fall, with the subsequent dominos becoming increasingly significant. Why is the old man in hospice care? Well, it’s a long, interesting, and in some ways tragic story. He developed a case of tennis elbow cleaning his garage. Because of the elbow, he quit yoga for a while; because of that, he lost his flexibility and therefore had trouble bending down to tie his shoes; because of that, one of his shoes came untied, causing him to trip; because of that, he conked his head. I could continue the chain of events, but I think you get the idea.
I am a private person and am therefore reluctant to share personal medical information, and as a practicing Stoic, I certainly don’t want these comments to make me come across as someone who is simply complaining about getting old. But to fill in the backstory, allow me to describe two more medical episodes.
I went in for what was supposed to be an in-and-out surgical procedure, and instead ended up spending five days in the hospital.
During a routine skin check, my doctor asked if I had had cancer before – not if I had ever had cancer, but whether I had had it before, leaving me to infer that I had it now. This inference turned out to be correct, but fortunately, it was not a life-threatening form of cancer. I now had another yes-box to check during my visits to doctors’ offices.
I have mentioned that I am a practicing Stoic, and that part of my rationale for becoming one was to prepare myself for old age. Old age seems to have arrived – or maybe I should be optimistic and label it early old age – raising the question of whether my adoption of Stoicism has been useful.
Many think of the ancient Stoics as people whose strategy for living was to stand there and glumly take whatever life threw at them. This turns out, as I’ve explained in my writings, to be a misperception. The Stoics were not only advocates of joyful living but developed strategies for avoiding, to the extent possible, the experience of negative emotions, such as anger, envy, regret, and anxiety. The strategies in question were based on insights that modern psychologists have rediscovered only in the last half century.
One of these insights involves what is referred to as framing. The Stoics knew that although we don’t have complete control over the challenges we experience in life, we have considerable control over how we frame those challenges. Allow me to explain.
Suppose someone wrongs you. You may not have seen it coming and may not have had any way to prevent it if you did foresee it, but now that it has happened, you have an important decision to make: how are you going to frame the incident? More precisely, are you going to play the role of victim of wrongdoing or the role of target? Play the role of victim, and you are likely to substantially increase the emotional harm done you; play the role of target, and you might come away feeling proud of how bravely you responded to the wrong that was done you.
Another frame – the one I describe in detail in my book The Stoic Challenge – is what I call the Stoic test frame. To use it, you treat the setbacks you experience as tests administered by imaginary Stoic gods. To pass the tests in question, you have to not only find a good workaround for a setback but keep your cool as you do. These tests, which are self-graded, are administered not as a kind of punishment, but to prepare you for the challenges that lie ahead in life. The Stoic gods are like coaches who, because they want their athletes to succeed, work them hard.
To illustrate this strategy, let me describe another of my medical incidents during the year that I got old. I developed a condition that put me in danger of passing out, meaning that for a time, I had to give up driving, for fear of passing out behind the wheel and killing myself or someone else. I also had to give up rowing a scull, for fear of passing out while doing so and drowning. (By way of explanation, sculls are boats that, in order to be fast, are very narrow, and because they are so narrow are remarkably tippy.) My doctor gave me a medication for my condition, but said that I had to refrain from consuming alcohol while I was on it, which would likely be for the rest of my life. Without advance notice, I was forced to give up driving, sculling, and drinking – a triple whammy.
In response to this news, I didn’t become despondent. In fact, I didn’t even complain. Instead, I immediately interpreted it as a rather elaborate Stoic test and set about trying to rise to the occasion, by finding workarounds for the various setbacks and remaining calm, cool, and collected as I did. I couldn’t drive? The solution was easy: I could ask my wife to take me places when it was convenient for her to do so, and when it wasn’t, I could resort to Lyft. I couldn’t row? Okay, but I could still use my rowing machine without danger of drowning. I couldn’t drink alcohol? That meant giving up wine with dinner, so it became a challenge to figure out what else to have. There was plain water, of course. But if I was in a more celebratory mode, I started treating myself to a home-brew hibiscus beverage. It looked like wine, and had a nicely complex taste.
It also dawned on me that by not buying wine, I would be avoiding lots of calories that could instead be “spent” consuming chocolate. I thereby embarked on a research project. Was there any form of chocolate that did not go well with coffee? So far I have tried perhaps two dozen different kinds of chocolate without finding one that did not nicely complement a cup of coffee. Research continues, though.
Besides using creative framing to deal with life’s setbacks, Stoics become adept in finding their silver linings. These linings are usually there if you look for them, but many non-Stoics don’t even bother to look, so convinced are they that their current circumstances have no redeeming aspects whatsoever. They choose, in other words, to play the role of victim.
With respect to the triple-whammy setback described above, I found several silver linings. Deprived of sculling, I turned my attention to cycling. It turns out that there are many bike paths near where I live. Cycling is not only great fun but has added another dimension to my life. Giving up alcohol revealed another silver lining. I wasn’t a big drinker, but I found that dropping my consumption to zero resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of my sleep, and perhaps as a consequence, in my daytime creativity and productivity as well. And finally, my inability to drive afforded me an opportunity to sit in the passenger seat instead of the driver’s seat, making it possible for me to really look at the landscape through which I had been driving for decades. It also made possible lots of husband-wife conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place.
Some of these conversations, I must confess, involved providing my wife with what I took to be helpful tips on her driving. I suspect that what for me was a silver lining for her had, to some extent, a dark aspect.
The ancient Stoics were even able to find silver linings in the ageing process itself. In the words of Seneca (in the twelfth of his Letters to Lucilius), “let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it.” Indeed, he claims that the most delightful time of life is “when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline,” and adds that even the time of abrupt decline has pleasures of its own. Most significantly, as one loses the ability to experience certain pleasures, one loses the desire to experience them: “How comforting it is,” he says, “to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!”
For the Stoics, having a good death was life’s ultimate challenge. We need to live our lives, they thought, so that when death finally arrives, we will have few regrets. There is reason to think that Seneca accomplished this feat. He spent the hours before his own death cheering up the people who had come to be with him. When Julius Canus, one of the lesser Roman Stoics, was being led to his execution – the Stoics had a talent for getting themselves into trouble – someone asked him for his thoughts. His reply: he was preparing himself to observe the moment of death. Would his spirit, he wondered, be able to witness its departure from his body?
When my time comes, I hope to follow in the footsteps of these Stoics and face the prospect of death calmly, cheerfully, and maybe even with a sense of wonder like that experienced by Canus. Time will tell.