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The New Old Age

Marshall Beach sunset. Romain Guy, 2012. Via Wikimedia Commons, CC0.

It's interesting how a book can show us a crystal-clear picture of who we were, are, and maybe even will be. The Portuguese edition I have of A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, edited by Diane K. Osbon, is dated 10/23/2003, when I was 37 years old. As I turned the pages of the book, I rediscovered a cute drawing of a bunny wrapped in little hearts made by my daughter, Laura, then five years old.

I hold the book in my hands and I see the passages underlined in chapter 1, Living in the World. They are the passages where Campbell explains his perspective of the five levels of love, from servile to fraternal, the biological desire for procreation, identification with the other and, finally, the romance of the highest order, wherein there is a surrender to love itself.

On my way into metanoia, evoked by living in the second half of life as Jung proposed, I was enchanted by the way Campbell talked about alchemical marriage. In marriage, he said, you are not sacrificing yourself for the sake of the other, but for the relationship. And I never forgot his amazement at couples who broke up after the children grew up. When their kids left the nest, they no longer had anything in common.

Many of the clients who seek out a Jungian psychoanalyst are struggling with love relationship issues. It was interesting to see that much of what makes sense to me in this regard goes back to this and other texts by Campbell. He describes, on page 48, the big problem with marriages: can couples open themselves to compassion? There is very little room for compassion in the modern world, inside and outside the psychotherapist’s office, and Campbell's question still resonates strongly nowadays.

However, nearly twenty years later when I reread his work for this brief essay,  my eyes were fixed on text not previously underlined, starting with the moment when the book itself was conceived, as the result of a one-month seminar for ten people in 1983 at Esalen. Campbell was 79 years old at the time, and I particularly appreciate the books, such as this one, that encapsulate worldviews and wisdom over the lifetime of great thinkers.

Now when there is, for so many of us, less time ahead than there is behind, what caught my attention were the passages in which Campbell talks about aging and death, and one’s attitude toward it. Or as he puts it, “You go to your death singing.” (80)

In italics, to help us deal with the idea, Diane points to a thought by Jung on the issue: “As a physician I am convinced that it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal toward which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.”

Discover in death a goal toward which one can strive… with this injunction in mind, I reread Campbell's passage on page 84 carefully:

In old age, your only relationship to the world is your begging bowl, which in our culture is your bank account. That’s what you’ve already earned, and it has to support this relatively carefree last stage of life.Since I am myself in that stage now, I can tell you that it is the best part of life. It’s properly called, in this wonderful language that we have, the “Golden Years.” It is a period when everything is coming up and flowering. It is very, very sweet.

Golden Years... Campbell is talking about the sweetness of the final stretch, heading to the exit, as he himself called it, in a very different perspective from that practiced in contemporary society. But as he said, he was not a sociologist and was not interested in these everyday things but, instead, in the eternal ones:

"The image of decline in old age is a bit deceptive”, he says, “because even though your energies are not those of early youth—that was the time of moving into the field of making all the big drives—now you are in the field, and this is the time of the opening flower, the real fulfillment, the bringing forth of what you have prepared yourself to bring forth. It is a wonderful moment. It is not a loss situation, as if you’re throwing off some-thing to go down. Not at all. It is a blooming. 

“It is a blooming.” “Golden years”. Now I understand what he means. It's about the individuation process Jung described. The image that comes to my mind when I read about aging in Campbell is that of a beautiful sunset, an intense phenomena made all the more so because we know it will soon be gone. A sunset, by the way, which illustrates the cover of the book in the Portuguese version.

I close the book and internally thank Campbell once again. Well, well. His work continues to resonate with me, exercising its pedagogical function of guiding me along the way, just as I imagine it does in the lives of so many other people.


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