Old people have a significant role to play, and some of them find it.9 min read

The problem for old people in the West is not that they are regarded as junk, but they regard themselves as junk. In many countries of the East, there are not so many old people, but those there are, are often better off, not materially but in quality of life. They have a significant role to play, and some of them find it.

In the East, it is expected that older people will turn to religion, which traditionally provides means to inner development. But this is not generally accepted in the West, which prides itself in its sceptical – though in fact deeply fearful – free thinking. So let us adopt provisionally some of the dogmas of this so-called free thinking. Even the doctrine of evolution at its most materialistic can give an indication to old people what to do.

First, let them ask themselves, or be asked, Why do old people exist at all? As the physical capacities decay the elderly do not produce food, yet they still consume it. So they are a burden on the community. Then why does not Nature arrange things so that when the children have grown up and have taken on the family responsibilities, the old people should simply drop down and die? It must be because there is still a vital role for them to play in the community, and it is up to them to discover what it is.

Now look at a little bit of history, and see that though the physical faculties must decay, the mind does not have to do so. It was absolutely inevitable that with advancing years, the poet-scientist and statesman Goethe, the artists Titian and Hokusai in Japan, the musician Verdi should lose much of their physical strength, speed of reaction, balance and so on. But Goethe finished his masterpiece Faust, which contains some of the finest poetry in European literature, when he was 82; Titian in Venice in the 16th century was still painting at ninety, and his last picture, Tarquin and Lucretia was one of his greatest masterpieces; Hokusai was an ordinary poster artist till his sixties, when he began a form of meditation. This inspired such woodblocks as The Wave (when he was 71), one of the most famous pictures in the world. He was still painting up to his death at age 89.

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There are innumerable such examples. Some people complain that these were exceptional people who cannot be models for ordinary lives. This is a mistake: the expression is admittedly extraordinary, not the latent capacity. The reason why these great and brilliant expressions are quoted is simply because they are fully documented. An elderly Japanese priest used to buy cheap bales of straw, which he had learned to weave skilfully into straw sandals. Early every morning he used to make a pair and hang it in front of the temple gate, with a little notice: “Please take this if you need it”. Some passer-by would always pick them up. Now this story was reported in a temple magazine. The humble and small-scale expression has a charm of its own, and his custom must have left a feeling of warmth in the hearts of all the passers-by, whether they took a pair or not. But how do we know that it is true? We cannot be sure, and that is why we need examples such as Verdi, who composed his greatest masterpiece Otello when he was 73, and the almost incredibly high-spirited and youthful Falstaff in his eightieth year.

Much of the mental deterioration in the elderly is due to the fact that they do not exercise their minds. Muscles atrophy when not used, and it is the same with mental faculties. As a practical programme, let someone over fifty years make it a habit to read, and memorize, a verse of poetry every morning, and bring it to mind in spare moments during the day. In India the verse would be probably from the Bhagavad Gita, which has a wonderful swing in the original Sanskrit, and even in modern translations including Edwin Arnold’s beautiful rhyming Song Celestial. (The rhymes make it easier to memorise.) But it is easy to find an uplifting thought-for-the-day diary. The content should be appealing, so that not only memory but intellect and feeling are similarly trained, stretched and expanded.

Old people should also try to become creative. To make a garden is creative, but some people do not have gardens, nor facilities for painting or music-making. Everyone can write, however, and try their hand at making verses. In Japan at the end of the year there is a national poetry competition, and they get something like 25,000 entries. The poems are judged by a distinguished panel, and the highest distinctions may be won by a poem from a coal-miner, or a shop-keeper’s wife. The poems are tiny things, written in simple language, but they can have real charm. Here is an example:

Playing with my grand-children,

Even I am a Buddha

For a little while.

When the mind is thus habitually aroused, let the older person consider the events of the past life, realize how much of it all was based on illusions, and look for the inner peace which did not change with the passing changes. It is Nature that sets up the situation, and there must be a purpose in it; experience has shown that there is a peace waiting to be discovered. They can find what poets called intimations of immortality buried deep in their consciousness. When a glimpse of this peace is obtained, others can feel it.

When one is young, there is no peace because the personality is changing so fast under the torrent of instincts; in middle age there is no peace, because for most people there is the struggle to get a living. These things are the whole world, and there is no peace, since when they change, the whole world seems to be changed. But old people have seen the show, as it were, several times. They know that even the most intense feelings will usually become shallow, and then pass away without fulfilling their promise. In the East, young and middle-aged people consult the old to re-capture their balance. “This is terrible; it is the end of the world.” “No, it is not. Don’t think you are the only one – these things are universal experiences and they are passing. There is this you can do, and this you might try, and this. And don’t go to bed at night without having done a good turn to someone. You will find you are no longer overwhelmed.”

I will finish this piece with a story from one of my books, Zen and the Ways, which illustrates some of the points made above. It is called The Pencil Stub

The Pencil Stub

An old lady in a country village brought up her little grandson, both of whose parents had died. She had little money and had a hard time doing it; the village were made aware of the extent of her sacrifices, and she did not have many friends. Living near by was a retired master of calligraphy, a man far advanced on the Way. He took an interest in the education of the village children, and told the old lady that her grandson was bright and should go on to a university.

When the time came he said, ‘If you and he are willing, I will give you an introduction to the head of a university in the capital whom I know well, where they have a hostel for country students.’ The grandmother told him, ‘Of course I shall be very lonely, but for the boy’s sake I agree.’ As the calligrapher sat down to his writing table, she thought, ‘Now I shall see something’, but instead of a brush he picked up an old blunt pencil stub. With a tiny knife he made a couple of cuts to take away a little of the wood but did not sharpen it. Then he took an ordinary piece of paper and scribbled something in a very loose hand which she could not read at all. He did not seal it, but put it in an envelope which he addressed carefully and clearly. He passed it over and said, ‘Show him that.’

The old lady was overcome with embarrassment; she thought, ‘How can I just show up a scribble like that, not even sealed? Anyone could have written it. The principal will probably refuse even to see me.’ But there was no help for it, so she accepted the tickets to the capital and they went. She presented the note to the secretary of the university president, who saw them at once. He was looking at the piece of paper as they went in, and after the introductions he remarked, ‘What a wonderful piece of writing! Who else could have done it? He is using a blunt pencil, and he has such control that he can vary the pressure to imitate a brush stroke. I will certainly make arrangements for a pupil recommended by him – and I should like to keep this note, which is a masterpiece.’

She was now alone during the term times, but it turned out that she was not so lonely as she had expected. More and more people began to drop in to her little house for a talk, bringing some present with them. One day one of them said, ‘Do you know why people like me call on you? In the old days you used to complain a lot and we found it rather tiring to listen to. But now you never complain, in fact you don’t say much at all. But when we go away from here, we find we have a sort of strength, a courage to face life. I am saying this only because I want to ask what made the change in you.’

The grandmother told her the story of the pencil, and said, ‘Afterwards I found that all the time I was asking myself, Why did he do it? It was like a puzzle that I couldn’t get out of my mind. He had all those brushes, and I know some of them are very rare ones which come from some place in China. But he used that old pencil stub, and still the university president said it was a masterpiece. He asked if he could keep it, you know. I thought and thought; I was always thinking, the pencil, the pencil. And that went on quite a time. One morning when I woke up it suddenly came to me, I am the pencil. My life is a worn-out stub, my body is dull and my mind blunt. But with just one or two little cuts, cutting away my selfishness, the Buddha can use it to write a masterpiece. That was the thought that came then – the Buddha can write a masterpiece. Since then I have felt a strength holding me, and peace within.’

Links:

Goethe

Titian

Hokusai