Recently, a 74-year-old woman in India gave birth to twins using assisted reproductive techniques, putting the spotlight on our contemporary collective fantasy of beating the age clock. Most of us wish to stay young forever and we dream of bodies that defy chronological age, and of careers that last a lifetime, a vitality that never diminishes and whimsical pursuits which never fade away. Scientific advancements, medical innovations and changing cultural ethos are prompting us to do everything possible to reverse the ageing process in all spheres of life. Of course, staying healthy, vibrant and happily occupied at all ages and stages of life is valuable but, are we turning this into an unhealthy, if not unnecessary, obsession?
As psychologist, I have listened to despondent narratives of people who have had great success in looking young, working past retirement age, being sought-after and celebrating their self-indulgences. They often remind me of kings Shantanu and Yayati from the Mahabharata who, despite growing old chronologically, were unwilling to renounce their desire for youthful exuberance. Their sons Devavrata and Puru had to make huge sacrifices so that the old kings could have their way. While Devavrata remained a celibate throughout life to help Shantanu marry the woman of his choice, Puru gave up his youth to revitalise his father Yayati. Despite their wishes being fulfilled, the elderly kings were not happy men. Shantanu continued to reel under the guilt of depriving his son a normal life and Yayati got fed up catering to his own uncontrolled desires. Both realised the futility of their wish to cling to their youth and their refusal to grow old gracefully.
The ashrama system in Indic tradition describes the four ideal stages of life: Brahmacharya, that is, childhood and adolescence where the youngster learns self-discipline, self-control, surrender and devotes time to acquiring education and wisdom; grihastha, the stage of the householder when an individual takes up a vocation, gets married, assumes adult responsibilities and raises a family; vanaprastha, the stage of retirement where the individual passes the mantle to the next generation happily, withdraws from the world and devotes time to self-reflection and spiritual endeavours and sanyasa, the final stage of life where one moves closer to spiritual realisation. These stages were intended to help people develop different facets of their self, participate in the play of life, experience a psychological evolution and prepare for the final exit from the world. In present times, most of us wish to desperately cling to and prolong the grihastha stage of life and the transition to vanaprastha never really happens.
Why is vanaprastha so important? Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson believes that when older people reflect on the lives they have lived, they feel happy if they had lived a meaningful existence. On the contrary, if they conclude that theirs was a life squandered, a deep despair haunts them. During this time, achieving a sense of satisfaction with one’s self is crucial for continued well-being. At this juncture, vanaprastha can help. Older people need not feel pressurised into matching up or outperforming younger people in their youthful escapades because the way to find meaning and happiness lies in repurposing oneself gracefully.
A contemporary version of vanaprastha could entail breaking free of our psychological conditionings, stringent worldly expectations and superficial engrossments and finding a sanctuary within, where the self can have deeper engagements with the soul.
The writer is a clinical psychologist in Puducherry.