Aging is a phenomenon of all things living.
If a phenomenon does not age it is not of this world; and if it is not of this world, it is not a phenomenon.Robert Pogue Harrison
Humans are ‘heterochronic’, literally defined as “the development of cells or tissues at an abnormal time relative to other unaffected events in an organism”. Different parts of ourselves age at different rates. We are made up of various ages. Physically, our bodies start failing us after a certain threshold. Our biological and physical states, in terms of strength, flexibility, and bone structure are at their peaks from 20-35 years of age and from then decline, even increasingly. Mentally, from ages 30-40, critical parts of our brain start shrinking and its neurons do not communicate as effectively as before. Brain health, consisting of cognitive health, motor function, emotional function, and tactile function then declines with age; this is immediately observable in decreased memory performance and increased difficulty to learn new tasks. However, biology cannot explain the phenomenon of age in its entirety. There are institutional, historical, and cultural factors at play that are inseparable from understanding our experiences of time. We are born into a world with a vast and profound past that is imprinted on us and our perceptions of the human experience, one with a past and future which transcends each of our individual lifespans.
Once I started writing this article I began to become more acute to mentions of time and experiences of aging of those around me.
Generational attitudes are ingrained in the way we approach each decade, each year even. Each decade we age possesses certain expectations, marked by years of experience and reflection by older generations.
One of my childhood friends was having a mild existential crisis about turning 20 in a month. (Same day as a certain artist’s song release which worked out nicely for her but this fortunate coincidence was not enough to overpower the imminent dreadfulness of the new decade). Like her, most of my friends are going into their 20s and are upset about what that means for them. As I said before, we are born into a humanly created world of inescapable societal influence. According to this, to be a teenager means to live recklessly and to experience all feelings and emotions before the rigid responsibilities of adulthood. Ideally. To surpass these years means in a sense giving up the most freedom we will ever have again. After years of organized socializing where the sources of anxiety are fleeting school dramatics, turning 20 means entering a decade of uncertainty, volatility, and newfound solitude.
Thousands of miles away my grandfather is in the hospital fighting multiple diseases simultaneously attacking his anatomy and making his body (and contingently his attitude towards living) age well over his 70s. Speaking to my mother on the phone she observes the full circle of life. My once formidable grandfather has now seemingly reverted to minimal, youth-like functionality, being waited on in between checkups and dialysis, needing assistance for basic tasks that were once performed with ease. My younger sister comments that he does not want to live anymore. Maybe people really do get tired of living.
I started writing this article because we are all constantly dreading growing old. I hear it from friends my age, trying hard to live everyday like the last but not often living up to the over repeated proverb. I hear it from my parents who are reeling from their new gray hairs. I wanted to find a reason to accept its inevitability and live better for it. We are scared of uncertainty because uncertainty is often unproductive.
There is no clear philosophy regarding age, but philosophers offer many thoughts on the subject of time. Most argue that our stubborn obedience to the linearity of time contrasts its innate organic and biological nature. We have learned to perceive life as a function of age, and this then as a function of time; life as a “chronological succession of present moments”. Robert Pogue Harrison puts it beautifully that “Only age gives time a measure of reality.” Time then is ostensive, without a clear definition yet something that we all know and experience. And I guess age is our way of bringing some sense to it.
“The Intriguing Phenomenon of Age” from Juvenescence: A cultural history of our age by Robert Pogue Harrison. University of Chicago Press. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://press.uchicago.edu/books/excerpt/2014/Harrison_Juvenescence.html
Blog – how old are you? philosophy of age and its relevance for Bioethics. Bioethics Today. (2022, February 11). Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://bioethicstoday.org/blog/how-old-are-you-philosophy-of-age-and-its-relevance-for-bioethics/
Dasein. Dasein – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/dasein
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). How the aging brain affects thinking. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking
Changes that occur to the aging brain: What happens when we get older. Search the website. (2021, June 10). Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/changes-occur-aging-brain-what-happens-when-we-get-older