Friday Book Club | The Coming of Age.

August 21, 2020

Friday Book Club | The Coming of Age.

May 29, 2023

Simone de Beauvoir is one of those epic writers and thinkers who has influenced so many of us. She’s on par with Sartre and buried next to him at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. She was an existential philosopher, early-day feminist, and political activist.

She wrote this book as an intellectual meditation on what it means to turn 60. Since I’m two months from that celebration, I picked up this book in the section of our MEA Library called, “What can I learn from personal stories?”

Here are some of my favorite passages from this lengthy tome:

  • She writes about Marielle Goitschel, a skier who was obliged to look at herself as old, but “old on the plane of sport.” This led me to asking the question, “What plane am I playing on? When I was at Airbnb, I was playing on the tech playing field and I felt old, but then I tilted the field to help them see the value of wisdom.
  • She talks about the peak of one’s life often being defined by the body and mind. Hippocrates, who was the first to compare one’s life stages to four seasons, said our peak was 56. Aristotle believed the body was perfect at 35 and the soul at 50. Dante was of the opinion that old age began to be felt at 45. With that backdrop, Simone makes an impassioned argument that one’s peak is after 60.
  • She says that age as a marker for decline is more obvious in our modern society. “Modern technological society thinks that knowledge does not accumulate with the years, but grows out of date. Age brings disqualification with: age is not an advantage. It is the values associated with you that are esteemed.” We have an “ambivalent” relationship with seniors today. We know we’re supposed to respect them and we will likely be one someday, but we’d prefer to have them out of sight.
  • But, she also suggests - as many French do - that the world is too identified with our career as our predominant role in life. “A man defines his identity by his calling and his pay: by retiring he loses this identity.” This is scary, but she suggests there is a freedom in peeling away this identity. Maybe “the role of the retired person is no longer to possess one.” To be “spacious and free,” two of my favorite words. And, yet, she laments the fact that retirement tends to accelerate the mortality rate especially among men, possibly because they haven’t evolved to a new identity.
  • “A limited future and a frozen past: such is the situation that the elderly have to face up to.” But, this neglects the present moment and here is where the joys of aging are so profound. Simone talked and wrote about this before mindfulness was well-known or Stanford’s Laura Carstensen’s studies showed that people get happier when they know they have a shorter future as they appreciate each day more.
  • “Yet our private, inward experience does not tell us the number of our years; no fresh perception comes into being to show us the decline of age. This is one of the characteristics that distinguish growing old from disease. Illness warns us of its presence and the organism defends itself, sometimes in a way that is more harmful than the initial stimulus; the existence of the disease is more evident to the subject who undergoes it than to those around him, who often do not appreciate its importance. Old age is more apparent to others than to the subject himself: it is a new state of biological equilibrium and if the ageing individual adapts himself to it smoothly he does not notice the change.” Hence, why you get scared glancing in the mirror or seeing a photo of you on Facebook.

In sum, this heady book reminds us that our treatment of the older generation is a reflection of our society’s values and priorities. It is a litmus test of “society’s secret shame.” She wrote this book to break down the “conspiracy of silence” she’d seen on this subject of ageing.

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