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March 12, 2007


Beth, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I haven’t read The Cure at Troy straight through—plays are hard to read—but there are parts of it I know, sections rich with memorable music. One use of a poet like Heaney is that he really does understand suffering, the bitterness of it, the way the heaviness stands side by side with the crankiness, so that it isn’t a pure and noble thing.

One section for the chorus from The Cure at Troy is famous—it’s the part that begins “Human beings suffer”—and is often quoted out of context. It’s used as a political thing, the same way hackneyed fragments of Yeats trips off the tongue of our politicians. But that section of Heaney’s is not essentially about political justice. It’s really about solving a personal grievance. Philoctetes wants healing, damn it. The “history” in question is, I think, a personal history. The “longed-for tidal wave of justice” is about redressing one man’s physical hurt.

This is a true thing about suffering. It is personal. Even when we suffer in sympathy with someone else, what it means is that we have made that suffering ours. It can’t be some abstract distant thing. And because it’s so personal, it’s especially vulnerable to contortion. It can makes us hard, cold. The poison of ego lurks inside it. Earlier in the play, Heaney writes of:

People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.
People so staunch and true, they are pillars of truth,
Shining with self-regard like polished stones.
And their whole life spent admiring themselves
For their own long-suffering.
Highlighting old scars
And flashing them around like decorations.
I hate it, I’ve always hated it, I am
A part of it myself.

Thinking about this, the wonder is not that some old people are bitter. The wonder is that there are so many who, even after a lifetime of sufferings, are not. This is true of some of my old friends. It’s not stoicism, exactly, it's not a hard thing. What they’ve found is a pliancy, through all the sicknesses and deaths of the years.

A young man wants to know: where does that come from?

FYI, the quotation marks and apostrophes you're using show up as strings of question marks in your feed. You might want to use the straight kind if that bothers you. (I convert all fancy quotes and apostophes at qarrtsiluni for that reason.)

Teju, thanks for the comments and the Heaney quote - much more apt than the famous one (which was everywhere, it seemed, but also was the only part of the play I could find on the net). As for your question... a lifetime of favoring gratitude over disappointment and loss definitely goes a long way. Surely temperament plays a part, as well as sheer luck - some people just suffer less than others. But I think mostly it may be a conscious decision. Among my neighbors in Vermont I've known two elderly women - one fairly well-off, but complaining and bitter, one poor but grateful and content. Guess who gets the visitors, and whose old age seems to be easier? Observing them - and my own feelings after visiting each of them over the years - has been a major influence on my own determination to emulate, as much as possible, the one and not the other. Now, the happier woman is definitely more religous - but my mother wasn't, and she was similar. I think people who develop, consciously, some sort of personal philosophy for dealing with life inevitable hardships tend to age more gracefully and with less bitterness. It can be from religion or not - it doesn't matter - but those who continue to be very invested in ego seem to have a much harder time accepting that difficulties happen even to them - and they are the types who never seem interested in anyone else, but want the younger people to listen to their stories and seek their advice.

Dave - thanks - but how do I do that?

I don't know if you saw the PBS Frontline program on "living old" but it dealt a lot with what modern medicine does to keep people going and the double-edged sword that that is. Or multi-edged. Sometimes it really is past the point of "more to be done." I've also been working on a project that has a large component of quality of life in people who are terminally ill. And of course I think of my own parents and how they're living out their last years. The Frontline piece was very thought-provoking:

Thanks a lot for this comment, Leslee - and no, I haven't seen the Frontline piece and will go now and take a look.

I share your qualms about modern life-prolonging medicine, Beth. And I think I would feel the same as you: that in your father-in-law's case it has definitely been worth it.

To be oneself until the end is the best any of us can hope for, which makes it all down to how much peace we can make with ourselves in the course of our lives - whether we can be self-conscious without being self-pitying.

(Which is why dementia is so sad, though not perhaps as clear-cut as we think. What I found most moving in John Bailey's book about Iris Murdoch's decline - though who knows if it is true - was his conviction that she remained happy and gentle after everything else in her personality had gone because that was her fundamental nature)

I must read the Heaney play, which I didn't know about. The story of Philoctetes has always haunted me more than any from the ancients - I guess it speaks to all our deepest fears of becoming lonely and repulsive.

You made me think a lot and cry a little this morning. Sharing these things is always worth while.

What a fine old man your father-in-law is. A treasure. He reminds me of my grandmother. I can't remember what the titles were, but in her final days at a care establishment what saddened her most was her seperation from several books of history from her old library, heavily annotized by her, but irretrievable due to a fire or some distribution that I can't recall; wanting them even though she could no longer see to read them. She never stopped following the news on TV and was wryly speak of how wowed she was at the romantic narratives of 30-second ads. She would affect great discomfiture at the sight and sound of animated dough-boys. Silly stuff, but she demanded of herself a sense of humour. She never allowed my father to complain, scoldingly asking him who could possibly want a complainer for a friend, and he seldom does, to this day.

Leslee - I haven't yet watched the Frontline program but the interviews on the website are very moving - I read last night until it just got too close to the bone and I had to stop! That's a very good site, with lots of information and discussion about this very topic. Thanks.

Jean - you're right about the book about Murdoch. I only read excerpts but that was my impression too, and it's been my feeling about all the people I've known closely as they age. Thanks for your comments about the ancient story too - I'm glad somebody else knew it! - let's read the Heaney play and see what it adds. And don't cry - I'm counting on all of us aging together, even if it's a virtual togetherness!

Thanks, Bill. Your grandmother sounds like a fine person too - I like how she admonished your father not to complain without really complaining herself! My mother used to say, "Well, time to get around here!" which meant "it's time to get going around here and stop your moaning and groaning" -- i.e. - "Buck up!" She did it so nicely it was usually effective, and my Dad and I both understood he shorthand. Thanks for adding your positive memories to this little thread on aging.

"Dave - thanks - but how do I do that?"

Do what ever you did in the previous post. Whether you have fancy or plain quotes depends on the settings in whatever program you're composing in, I think.

Our parents did not live to such a ripe age, so I've great admiration for your father-in-law, Beth. These discussions of care of the elderly and the choices out there, have been in our papers a lot lately, and now reading some of the Frontline articles bring it all together. I'm honestly feeling great trepidation for how it's going to be when we are needing care in our own old age. It all depends on how healthy one can stay, doesn't it? And how much we'll have left to cover costs of the best care if we do live a long time?

I've always enjoyed your writing about your father-in-law very much, and so it pains me to hear he is "declining." Your writing has been so vivid and moving over the years that I expect I will mourn him when the time comes as if I had known him myself. His ability to stay productive and vibrantly alive through the years is, as Teju writes, a mysterious miracle.

My own grandfather, in his mid-80s now, keeps on with life, even driving himself out to lunch now and again (although that may be ending soon), but he's not nearly as mentally nimble as your father-in-law. I should perhaps be more attentive to him in these waning years. Thank you.

We went through this with my father and are now going through it with B's mother, and "trying not to allow myself to get annoyed" is really much more heroic an effort than anyone who hasn't been through it would imagine. B's reaction is not to want to get that old; mine is to hope that I'm not that annoying. I don't know which is the more realistic attitude. Great post.

I always love your posts about your father-in-law -- he's so real, I can imagine him very clearly. I hope that you will write an extended piece about / around him someday, and include material like this story of Philoctetes.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.