By Edmund Sherman Gordian Knot, 2010 Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. on Feb 22nd 2011
It is hardly surprising to learn that in our rat-race competitive world, retiring seniors are counseled by their families, friends, and doctors to "stay active" by finding alternative "work" and by keeping their social calendars filled. The modern capitalist-industrial world, revering productivity, only finds value in people who remain engaged in the vita active and continue to contribute to their society. Gerontologist and octogenarian Edmund Sherman, professor emeritus of Social Welfare at SUNY Albany, challenges this general counsel. He applies his elderly wisdom, gleaned both by age and by decades of work with the (60+ year old) aging, to rethink the values that ought to maintain in later life. Sherman's Contemplative Aging takes an alternative approach to the general counsel of our societies, and recommends a new focus, from "doing" to "being," as the secret to achieving eudaimonia in old age.
Sherman advises: slow down, smell the roses that you missed in earlier years, and turn to the vita contemplative for inner satisfactions, to compensate for the external losses--the dwindling social, physical, and material benefits--that accompany old age. Sherman's research at the Institute of Gerontology, combined with his personal experience of aging alongside his clients, has clearly awakened the philosopher--and the phenomenologist--within the scientist. Sherman copiously quotes the philosophers, as he builds his argument for a deeper quality of life, characterized by a new interiority that becomes possible with retreat from the fray of working life. Citing Emerson, Sherman advocates for "an inner life that sits at home, and does not learn to do things, nor value these feats at all. . . a quiet wise perception [that] lives in the great present; it makes the present great" (Sherman, p. 19). With Heidegger, Sherman urges us to "raise the question of Being" (p. 27) and join in the "radical empiricism" to which William James directs us (p. 29). Drawing upon the history of philosophical wisdom, east to west, Sherman illuminates the broader horizons that welcome the elder to a life of wisdom-seeking, as she retires from the exigencies of societal productivity.
Rather than lament the losses that accompany aging, Sherman insists that here, in the golden years, freedom from societal engagement should be celebrated, because it opens a horizon of time and space where a more thoughtful life can dawn. His argument for peaceful, fulfilling elderhood is grounded in a Taoist / Buddhist logic, with its wisdom of "letting go" and embracing the perennial present, to get the most out of each precious moment of life.
The vibrant tapestry of diverse philosophical insights that Sherman interweaves in this book portraits a "way of being" that is surely existentially valuable to all readers, though foreign to most modern folk, swept up in professional and material competition. As a philosopher, I am cheered and charmed to discover a scientist unearthing the treasures of philosophy in his old age. And Sherman's advice is sound: sages throughout the millennia have found the meaning of life and the secret of human flourishing outside the marketplace, the laboratory, the courtroom, and the political arena.
I heartily applaud Sherman for his sound counsel to his aging fellows. Sherman's book is a good place for the novice philosopher to begin, because it is readily accessible to any educated reader and (disappointing to the more rigorous scholar) does not trouble the reader with careful citations or weighty footnotes. But I would go further in counseling would-be philosophers. I would add: Why wait till old age? If the secret to human happiness resides in the more thoughtful life that slows down to savor the moment, why wait for life to cripple the limbs before advantaging oneself of this simple recipe for eudaimonia? The quality of life is always best served by the thoughtful philosophical approach. Why not cultivate the inner sage in the midst of the rat race, where life meaning grows increasingly degraded by the twisted values of industrialized capitalism, rather than merely turning to philosophy as a consolation in the declining years of life?