Friday, August 24, 2012

Getting Older, Not Old

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
King Lear (last line at 5.3.327-28)

Recently, the world celebrated milestones associated with a few of my childhood heroes: Julia Child (whose centennial was just celebrated without her, as she’d died a few days shy of 92), Phyllis Diller (who made it to 95 this week), Gene Kelly (who would have hit the century mark this week had he not had a series of strokes at 84). One of my other heroes, Pete Seeger, is still hard at work trying to save the planet at 93.

I will not try to explain here the eccentric childhood that compelled me to embrace such a diverse collection of characters. I merely note that another thing these diverse characters have in common is: a passion for their work.

Suggesting a correlation between loving the day job and longevity is not exactly original. And Karl Marx famously argued in support of the inverse proposition—that feeling alienated from one’s work is a sure way to suck the life out of a person. When it comes to law practice, one can see an interesting paradox. On one hand, lawyers have some of the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide among professionals; on the other hand, identifying lawyers who really love their jobs and refuse to close up the briefcase until they are well into their golden years is also easy. For instance, at the law firm with which I am affiliated, a remarkable number of senior partners are truly senior—yet do not seem eager to pack up their desks any time soon.

Shakespeare’s Lear was older—and then he suddenly became old. Being “older” is simply a mathematical reality; but being “old”—well, that’s a state of mind that can really do a person in.

Shakespeare tells us Lear’s age. And the number may surprise you. It is “fourscore and upward,” i.e., over 80. This is surprising because, in Shakespeare’s day, average life expectancy was around 35. Shakespeare himself did not quite reach 52 years. Even the relatively ancient Queen Elizabeth I died at 70. So the decision to make Lear that much older has significance. Also, noteworthy is the fact that, when we first meet the guy, he is a profoundly forceful figure. The act that precipitates his descent into “being old” is the decision to retire:

. . . ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.

We see pretty quickly, however, that Lear really has no interest in “crawling toward death.” He still sees himself as a player. And he is appalled that two of his daughters want to strip him of all the trappings of his former job, such as a contingent of armed soldiers and other executive privileges. The difference in the way he is treated once he gives up his job as Grand Poobah shocks him. And each trauma thereafter exacerbates his sense of himself as “old,” e.g.:

·         When he is banished from his two elder daughters’ homes, he says: “O Regan, Goneril,/ Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all--/ O that way madness lies; let me shun that.” (3.4.19)

·         When one of his comrades encounters Lear wandering on the heath and offers him a hand, Lear says “Let me wipe it first: it smells of mortality.” (4.6.135)

·         When Lear is finally reunited with the daughter who actually loves him and whom he treated so shabbily, he says “Pray, do not mock me:/ I am a very foolish fond old man . . . .” And later in the same scene, he describes himself again as “old and foolish.” (4.7.60, 84)

By the time Lear and daughter Cordelia are taken captive in the midst of the civil war that has erupted in Lear’s former kingdom, Lear is no longer interested in confronting his tormentors. He has given up on worldly things and entered second childhood:

. . . . Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

And when Lear is confronted with the worst development yet—Cordelia’s execution—he becomes completely incapacitated and embraces “mere oblivion.” Cradling Cordelia’s lifeless body, he moans:

And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

At this point, he is not only at a loss for words, but he can no longer undress himself:

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

And so he dies.

If only the guy had kept working!

Seriously, there’s a reasonable argument to be made by analogy: If a person does not like being a lawyer, the sheer grind could easily drive that person to an early grave. If a person loves being a lawyer, all those long hours may actually promote long life; and hanging up the briefcase prematurely—just because a person is older—might transform that person from being older to being old if he or she is not careful. The really good news is that “being a lawyer,” unlike “being king,” can mean so many things. And if a person does not like being a lawyer in one mode, one can still hope to find satisfaction without abandoning the profession altogether. It just may take some resourcefulness to calculate the next move. In any case, we should all strive to find work we love and pursue it as we become older lest we suddenly succumb to being old.

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