Acting Our Age

Having finished reading Edmund Burke’s reflections as a break from reading Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, I returned to the final novel in that group and was immediately struck by a remarkable paragraph. The hero of the series of novels, Shigekuni Honda, is now an old man and the author reflects on aging and the complications that go along with it. The series of four novels is a careful and critical examination of the deterioration of Japanese civilization due to the powerful influence of Western values (especially capitalism) and — obviously — the devastation of the Second World War. In the fourth novel, after Honda’s wife died, the author paired the old man with an equally old woman who has become his close friend. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy telling one another anecdotes about their early years — neither one listening to the other, of course. But they have discovered in their friendship something very precious. In one brief aside, the narrator has this stunning reflection on the relationship between Honda and his friend Keiko:

“If old age was the reality most unpleasant to have to accept and most continuously to be lived with, then Honda and Keiko had each made the other a refuge from the reality. Their intimacy was not juxtaposition but a brushing past in the rush for a refuge. They exchanged empty houses and hurried to lock the doors behind them. Alone inside the other, each of them could breathe easily.”

There is so much in these few sentences to learn from, regardless of our age, that one hardly knows where to start. It is certainly the case that we could all benefit from the narrator’s wise advice to find solace and true happiness not within the self that closes itself off from others, but “inside the other.” This is especially the case in a culture like ours where the self has become the focal point of one’s entire existence. Honda’s and Keiko’s “intimacy” is not sexual, given their ages and the fact that Keiko is homosexual; it is spiritual and allows each of them to find in the other a “refuge from reality.”

But as an old fart myself who “lives continuously” with old age, waking each day with new aches and pains and no longer able to do the things he took for granted only a few years ago, like playing the game of tennis he enjoyed for more than 50 years, or simply running or kneeling down (and struggling to get up again!), and one who resents deeply the sentiments evoked by public pronouncements about aging that have brought about the cultural urge to turn back the clock, color the hair, eliminate wrinkles, look and act like a foolish teen-ager, I find Mishima’s words profound and profoundly true. Our culture does not teach us to age gracefully — or to do much of anything gracefully, for that matter. It resents old age, unlike those cultures that not only respect, but revere old age, as the Japanese culture did once upon a time — though not recently, as we are told by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who noted in his Praise of Shadows that in increasingly Westernized Japan “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth. . .the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people.”

We turn away from the elderly, put them away in homes, and dismiss their words based on years of experience as the muttering of old fools. It is a part of our cultural malaise that we cannot act our age, that we prolong adolescence as long as possible and regard maturity as something to be avoided at all costs. We have certainly done a good job of that as middle-aged men still act like frat brothers, telling crude jokes and slapping one another on the butt; and middle-aged women get their faces lifted or their tummies tucked, always checking the mirror. But, in the process we have become lost within ourselves, not sure who we are, and unable to find our way — which, as Mishima reminds us, can only be discovered by forgetting ourselves and becoming intimate with another. It begins with a look at the world outside ourselves and the realization that our own happiness is predicated on “finding refuge” in others.