My power machine (Tacx bike trainer and Batavus race bike)
I should write yet a bit about Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. However, I would deviate then too much from philosophy and the leading themes of these blogs: Who am I and what do I do? Even if I should interpret theses themes very broad, as I often do. So, I dropped the idea.
But who am I and what do I do? And how does this develop in the course of life? One doesn’t remain always the same. For most people it is so that – to say it shortly – first they grow and after having reached the summit decay sets gradually in and actually there is no return from that. True?
Once I was asked to write an essay on “graceful ageing” (and much of what follows now is from that essay). Then someone said to me “Becoming older is not for sissies. You fall apart physically and mentally and you get lots of wrinkles. I don’t see any grace in that.” Now I am the last to deny that becoming old is often difficult, but has it only negative aspects?
In this blog I want to talk about the physical side of ageing and indeed, when you grow older, often this side of life becomes problematical or even unbearable. For many people the defects of the body become so dominant that there seems to remain only decay. It cannot and must not be denied, but is it the only thing there is? One can say: such a decay is ungraceful, anyhow. But even then, in Orwellian words: All decay is ungraceful, but some decay is less ungraceful than other decay. Often we are left some elbow room. For some people it is wide, for others it is limited, but I think that just this elbow room is the space where ageing can be less unpleasant despite its difficulties.
Although I am a philosopher and a sociologist, being active with my body has always been important for me. I started to do sports when I was a student, and since then sport has stayed a significant part of what I do. I know that sooner or later I’ll be forced to give it up, for it seldom happens that people stay sporty till a high age. Only some keep practising it even then, as my readers know from my blogs on Robert Marchand, who even succeeded to set up a world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group that was especially created for him. But Marchand is exceptional in view of the human fate. Anyway, I hope that I can postpone the date that I have to stop cycling and running till late in life, for I think that sport has two aspects that help making life pleasant. It is enabling in the sense that it contributes to feeling better and fitter and in this way it makes that other activities can be done better. Moreover, doing sport till an advanced age is also a way of good living as such. Sport enhances the quality of life. But in the end there is only a way down in life, or so people think, and that was why I was asked to write an essay on how to go the way down gracefully, if possible. However, must I accept the decay as a natural process, and that’s all that can be done?
In a certain sense it is and by and large the physical decay is predictable, although there are big individual differences. When earlier this year a cycling club was established in my town, I had the courage at my age of 67 to join this club, even though it was only for cyclists with a race bike – which I have, though – and even though the other boys and girls are younger, if not much younger. Moreover, in a reckless mood, I joined the group of the fastest riders (for happily so many enthusiasts had joined the club that several groups of riders could be formed). Well, I should have known better, but with some effort I always succeeded to follow the shadows of my fellow riders, although when it goes hill up some see my back, for I have always been a good climber. All this is very nice, of course, and wouldn’t be worth to write a blog about, but last week I had a fitness test and although I knew that my physical condition was already very good for my age, the unexpected happened: the result was better than three years ago, despite the fact that I had become older and despite the fact that it is more or less a natural law at my age that people go physically down.Somewhere in his Essays Montaigne writes that all things have their seasons, also good ones. He devoted even an essay to the theme. In other words, if you become older if not old, you must stop doing things that were normal when you were younger, even if you are still able to do them. It has no sense to learn a new language after a certain age; it has no sense to try to acquire new knowledge. “When will you be wise, if you are yet learning?”, to paraphrase a quote from the Greek philosopher Xenocrates (396-314 BC) cited by Montaigne. I think that he would say the same of me and others who do like me and continue doing physical exercise till a later age. But, I think that my case illustrates that Montaigne is wrong. Human decay cannot be stopped but it is not a straight line. Not all things have their seasons. Profit by it. Even well on in years you can become better, for in many respects you are what you do, even if it doesn’t look the natural way.