Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)
Hymn to Old Age
"OLD AGE is a stage in our lives, and like all the other stages it has its own face, its own atmosphere and temperature, its own joys and needs. We old men with white hair, like all our younger human brethren, have the task of giving meaning to our existence, and even someone critically ill or dying, who lies in his bed scarcely able to hear a cry that comes from this world, still has his task — something to be done that is important and necessary.
Being old is just as fine and sacred a task as being young; learning to die and dying is just as valuable a function as any other — provided it is done with respect for the meaningfulness and sanctity of all life.
An old man who only hates his white hair and his proximity to death is as unworthy a representative of this phase of life as a young, strong man who hates his job and his daily work and tries to get out of them. In brief, if an old man is to achieve his goal and do justice to his task, he must be in accord with age and with everything that age brings with it—he must say yes to all of it. Without this yes, without acceptance of what nature demands of us, we lose the value and the sense of all our days — whether we are old or young —and we betray life.
Everyone knows that old age brings its problems, and that death waits at the end of it. Year after year one must make more sacrifices and accept more deprivations. One must learn to distrust one’s senses and one’s powers. The path which not so long ago was just a little walk becomes long and tiring, and one day we can no longer manage it. We must give up the foods which all our lives we have so enjoyed eating. Physical joys and pleasures become rarer, and we must pay an ever greater price for them. And then all the breakages and illnesses, the weakening of the senses, the waning of the organs, the many aches and pains, especially in the long and fearful nights — none of this can be denied, for it is stark reality.
But it would be sad and pathetic just to give in to this process of decay and not to see that old age has its good side, its advantages, its sources of comfort and enjoyment. When two old people meet, they should not speak only of their accursed gout, of their arthritic limbs and breathlessness on the stairs, they should not just exchange tales of their sufferings and annoyances, but they should also talk about cheerful and enjoyable experiences. And there are plenty of those. When I refer to this good and positive side of an old man’s life, and to the fact that we grey-haired folk are also acquainted with sources of strength and patience and pleasure that play no part in the lives of the young, I am not talking about the comforts of religion and the Church. That is the province of the priest. But I think I can gratefully give names to the gifts that are given to us by age. For me the dearest of all these gifts is the treasure of images which after a long life we carry in our memory, and to which with the decline of our active powers we turn with a different attitude from ever before.
The figures and faces of people who left the earth sixty or seventy years ago still live on in us, are part of us, keep us company and look at us with eyes that are still alive. Houses, gardens, towns that have now disappeared or completely changed we can see unscathed, just as they were before, and distant mountains and coasts that we saw decades ago on our travels we rediscover fresh and colourful in our book of pictures.
Looking, observing and contemplating increasingly becomes a habit, an exercise, and imperceptibly the mood and approach of the watcher permeates all our actions. We are haunted, like most people, by desires, dreams, yearnings and passions, under attack through the years and decades of our lives, impatient, tense, expectant, deeply affected by successes and failures — and today, gently leafing through the great picture book of our own life, we are amazed at how good and beautiful it can be to have escaped the hunt and the headlong rush and to have landed safely in the vita contemplativa.
Here, in this garden of old men, many flowers blossom which earlier we would never have thought of cultivating. There blooms the flower of patience, a noble plant, and we become calmer, more tolerant, and the less we insist on actively intervening, the greater becomes our ability to watch and listen to the life of nature and the lives of our fellow humans, and to let it all pass us by without criticism but with renewed amazement at the vast diversity, sometimes taking part or silently regretting, and sometimes laughing with shining joy and humour.
Recently I was standing in my garden, and had lit a fire which I fed with leaves and dry twigs. Then an old woman, probably about eighty, came walking past the whitethorn hedge, stopped and looked at me. I greeted her, and she laughed and said :
“You’re quite right to light a fire. At our age we need to gradually make friends with hell.”
With this she had set the tone of a conversation in which we moaned to each other about all kinds of sufferings and deprivations, but always making fun of ourselves. And at the end of our conversation, we confessed to each other that in spite of everything, we were not at all so dreadfully old and indeed could hardly call ourselves old so long as the oldest inhabitant of our village, a centenarian, was still alive.
When the very young, with their superior strength and their innocence, laugh at us behind our backs and mock our hobbling gait, our few white hairs and our scraggy necks, then we remember that once we had the same strength and innocence and also smiled, and we do not see ourselves as inferior or vanquished, but rejoice that we have grown out of this phase of life and have now become just a little wiser and a little more patient."
THE OLD MAN AND HIS HANDS
Until the long, long night is over
His weary way he makes
And watches when he wakes
And there at rest upon the cover
Sees his hands, both left and right
Worn-out servants, wooden, tight
And he chuckles
Softly, not to wake his knuckles.
Undaunted, they’ve worked hard and true
When most have had enough
For they’re still strong and tough.
There’s even more that they could do.
But though these faithful vassals stay
They’d like to rest and turn to clay
And say goodbye
To serfdom, for they’re drained and dry.
Softly, not to wake his fingers
The old man laughs again
And life’s long winding lane
Seems short, and yet the night still lingers
On and on ... And children’s hands
And young men’s hands, and old men’s hands
Look just like these when all the sands
Of time have gone.