On Old Age (As Viewed By Hermann Hesse)

Old age is a stage in our lives,
and like all other stages
it has a face of its own,
its own atmosphere and temperature,
its own joys and miseries.

We old white-haired folk,
like all our younger human brothers,
have a part to play
that gives meaning to our lives,
and even someone mortally ill and dying,
who can hardly be reached in his own bed
by a cry from this world,
has his task, has something
important and necessary to accomplish.

Being old is just as beautiful
and holy a task as being young,
learning to die and dying are
just as valuable functions as any other –
assuming that they are carried out
with reverence toward the meaning
and holiness of all life.

A man who hates being very old and gray,
who fears the nearness of death,
is no more worthy a representative
of his stage of life
than a strong young person who hates and tries
to escape his profession and his daily tasks.

To put it briefly,
to fulfill the meaning of age
and to perform its duty
one must be reconciled with old age
and everything it brings with it.
One must say yes to it.
Without this yea,
without submission to what nature demands of us,
the worth and meaning of our days –
whether we are old or young –
are lost and we betray life.

Everyone knows that old age brings with it infirmities
and that at its end stands death.
Year after year one must make sacrifices
and endure renunciations.
One must learn to distrust one's senses and powers.
The road that a short time ago was a short stroll
becomes long and wearisome,
and one day we can no longer walk it.
We have to forgo some of the foods
that all our lives we have so much enjoyed.
Physical joys and pleasures
become rare and must constantly
be paid for at a higher price.
And then all the disabilities and illnesses,
the weakening of the senses,
the flagging of the organs,
the many pains,
so often occurring in the long anxious nights –
all this is not to be denied,
it is bitter reality.

But is would be mean-spirited and sad
simply to resign oneself to this process of decline
and not to see that old age has its good side,
its advantages, its sources of comfort and joy.

When two old people meet each other
they ought not to exchange information
just about their sufferings and annoyances
but also about their more cheerful
and comforting experiences and adventures.
And there are many of them.

In remembering the positive and beautiful side of the life of the aged
and the fact that we ancients have sources of strength,
of patience, of joy that play no role in the life of the young.
I am not competent to discuss the comforts of religion and the Church.
This is the business of the priest.

I can, however, name some of the gifts
that old age bestows on us.
To me the dearest of these gifts is
the treasury of pictures
which after a long life
one carries in one's memory
and to which one turns,
as activity decreases,
with a quite different interest than ever before.

Human figures and faces
that for sixty or seventy years
have no longer existed on earth
go on living within us,
they belong to us,
provide us with company,
look out at us from living eyes.

We see houses, gardens, cities
that have since disappeared
or are wholly changed as they once were,
and distant mountain ranges
and seacoast that we once visited
on journeys decades ago
we find fresh and colorful in our picture book.

Noticing, observing, contemplating
become more and more a habit and exercise,
and imperceptibly the mood and attitude
of the beholder permeate our whole behavior.

We, like the majority of men,
have stormed through our years and decades of living,
driven by wishes, dreams, desires, passions,
impatient, tense, expectant,
highly excited by fulfillment or by disappointment –
and when today we cautiously leaf
through the big picture book of our own lives,
we are surprised at how beautiful and good
it can be to have escaped that chase and pursuit
and to have arrived at the vita contemplativa.

Here in the garden of old age
bloom many flowers to whose cultivation
we once barely gave a thought.
Here blooms the flower of patience, a noble blossom.

We become more relaxed, more considerate,
and the fewer our demands for participation
and action become, the greater grows our ability
to contemplate and listen
to the life of nature and of our fellow men,
to let that life stream past us without criticism
and with ever-renewed astonishment at its variety,
sometimes with solicitude and quiet pity,
sometimes with laughter, with sheer joy, with humor.

Recently I was in my garden tending a fire,
which I was feeding with leaves and dried twigs.
Along came an old woman, probably close to eighty,
past the whitethorn hedge;
she stopped and looked at me.

I greeted her and she laughed
and said, 'you're doing quite right with your little fire.
At our age we'd do well to make friends with hell by slow degrees.'
That struck the tone of our conversation,
in which we complained to each other
of all kinds of pains and deprivations
but always in a spirit of merriment.

And at the end of our conversation
we admitted to each other that despite everything
we couldn't really be so frightfully old
and could hardly count as real ancients
so long as the oldest woman
in the village was still alive, at one hundred.

When the very young people,
in the superiority of their strength
and lack of sensitivity,
laugh behind our backs
and find our gait awkward
and straggling white hairs
and scrawny necks comic,
then we remember how we once,
in possession of the same strength
and lack of sensitivity,
also laughed,
and we do not seem to ourselves inferior or defeated,
but rather we rejoice that we have outgrown that stage of life
and have become a shade more shrewd and more patient.