Celebrating age - affecting a radical revolution

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring in various ways the pressing need to 'let-things-be' (as one, hyphenated, word) and, since this particular service forms part of 'Cambridgeshire Celebrates Age' in a moment I will go on to explore how I think such a philosophy might help to bring about a profoundly revolutionary change in our culture.

However, at first sight, it might seem that when it comes to the way we are treating our elderly the time for letting things be is definitively over. I think all of us are aware that the way older members of society are being treated today is utterly appalling and that things must change.

But, as I talk about 'letting-things-be' today, it is vitally important to realise that I am using it in a particular way that is not a call to a passive quietism but rather to a very active and revolutionary way of being in the world. The philosophy I am proposing, rooted in Spinoza and the work of the modern philosopher Freya Mathews, is one of encounter in which we understand the world, not as an agglomeration of individuated, and often inanimate inanimate things, but as subjective expressions of a Thou, an 'other'; as Spinoza put it Nature is God, God is Nature - and so every apparently individual thing (and whether obviously animate or not) is really to be understood as a mode of God-or-Nature. As such this address forms part of an ongoing challenge to all modern western philosophies which have followed Descartes into positing a dualism of mind and matter.

I mention this fact so that the basic a priori philosophical assumption of this address - all my addresses in fact - is not hidden from you but made explicit and available for criticism. If anyone wants to explore this aspect of the address in depth I'd be delighted to explore this here on my blog. Here, however, I will do no more than simply point you to the idea's important informing presence.

I'll begin with some words of the philosopher Freya Mathews. She reminds us that a philosophy of 'letting-things-be' is to 'embrace the things at hand' rather than 'seeking to replace them with new ones' (For the Love of Matter, State University of New York Press, 2005, p. 34). Although this idea sounds very simple, adopting such an attitude in fact radically challenges modern CONSUMERISM with its insatiable desire for the new in all areas of life. It does this because, as Mathews observes,

From the viewpoint of letting things be, we would be most pleased, not with our brightest and newest things, but with those that had endured the longest and were accordingly our oldest and most well worn. Such things, having long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours, would be the most precious (ibid p. 34).

This instantly bears upon the question of our culture's relationship to age and, therefore, the elderly. It should be clear if our general attitude were changed (individually and as a culture) and we truly took seriously the idea and consequences of 'letting-things-be' then older people, who have long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours, would become, not less, but increasingly precious to us. Surely this is a good place to start our cultural and social revolution.

This basic thought naturally leads on to another radical challenge, this time to our tendency to COMMODIFY things. Why? Well, because when one actually begins to value the old things that have intermingled in our lives one begins to realise that they are not merely things that can be traded in the market place to help us afford new versions of the same thing or, rather more abstractly, for cash so we can turn them into wholly different products. Instead their utter uniqueness, irreplacability and intrinsic value begins to emerge before us.

Let me begin with what will, perhaps, be seen as a trivial example but I think it is usefully clear example. I have had my plastic yellow bath duck for years; it was originally a shampoo bottle. Because of the extra weight of the screw top poking out in an ugly way from its bottom it has always floated in the bath with a disastrous and ungainly list. Now, last year I went into a shop in Wells-next-the-Sea where I found a wonderful, pristine yellow rubber duck that floated oh, so beautifully (just like the one in my photo). I very nearly bought this duck and, had I done so, I almost certainly would have thrown the old-guy out in the bin. Yet, when I thought about it I realised the old-guy was with me as a kid, he has stayed with me as an adult, he even survived a major house fire and, more importantly, he has floated around me as I have read many volumes of philosophy and theology in a warm bath. The truth of the matter is, that if I am to have a yellow bath duck at all the only one to have is the one I already possessed who has shared so much with me. As Mathews observes, such things 'cannot be replaced by other things, even things of the same type, since the substitutes will not share our history nor hence be imbued with the same meaning for us' (ibid p. 35).

It should be abundantly clear that what is true in this trivially important way of my bath duck it is doubly true of the individual people who have figured in my lives and mingled their meaning, identity and destiny with my own. Through their own circles of commingling we are quiety knitted into ever wider networks of loyalty, belonging and appropriate responsibility. To 'let-things-be' is to begin to see that none of the things in our lives (from the apparently trivial to the obviously important) are commodities to be bought and sold in open markets. They truly are unique and utterly priceless.

I'll make one further explicit connection here before concluding and it concerns our culture's fetishisation of a certain kind of understanding of EFFICIENCY. We can all cite examples of how our culture (and we as individuals?) has sometimes valued things, 'not so much for what they do as for their efficiency, and they are retained only so long as their efficiency is perceived as maximal' (p. 35). However, and again I cite Mathews:

'When the attitude of letting-be is assumed . . . tools [where this includes all kinds of techniques and procedures as well as implements and technology] are valued not merely for their efficiency, but for their givenness. I may continue to use an old plough, or leaky fountain pen, or a certain laborious method for making dough, simply because this is the plough, pen, or method, that my teacher or my friend's mother used; it is for me embedded in the fabric of the given. Efficiency may still be a consideration, but it will be only one factor determining the means I choose to achieve my ends' (ibid p. 35).

But we have been living in an age and culture where people, too, often become commodities of a society - i.e. merely workers and generators of money, service or products - and when those same people have got too old to be maximally efficient in their culturally defined tasks what happens to them? Well, we know what happens to them. They get abandoned - financially, emotionally, societally. Some, luckily, have the wherewithal (financial and psychologically) to keep going but some, and in increasingly huge numbers, are put into places that are little better than glorified prison camps. If not that, we have invented a new underclass to deal with the 'problem' - the unpaid carer. These people, too, become commodified and sucked into the whole dehumanising process; ignored when they are efficient and discriminated against in all kinds of ways when they have to cease caring - either because of their own age or sheer physical and/or mental exhaustion.

It is about time we got angry and politically active about this. It is truly a disgrace that whilst our culture is prepared to spend billions of pounds and trillions of dollars bailing out a financial system based upon the fantasy and greed of our culture yet we have not had the courage to spend even the minimal amount required that would ensure the well-being and security of the older people who have long figured in our lives and mingled their identity and destiny with ours. Those who should be the most precious to us are the ones who we marginalise and throw out.

I hope you can see that what I mean by 'letting-things-be' is not to leave untackled the dreadful situation so many of our older people find themselves in today - nor indeed to leave untackled the myriad number of other things so obviously wrong with our culture. Instead it, is to be driven to effective, appropriate and radical action by valuing what we already have and by being prepared to let things grow old; it is to see things and people as ends in themselves with an intrinsic value that is not based upon distorted ideas of commodity and efficiency. It is to understand the whole world as being alive and divine.

But whether or not you buy into this Spinozistic understanding of God-or-Nature as being one of the most effective (and I think one of the truest) motivating forces for sustained radical action that a contemporary, rational religious liberal can adopt, one thing is for sure, none of us - whatever we beleive - can continue to allow our older people to be treated as they are. It is wrong now and it will be wrong in the future. For God-or-Nature's sake leave here and join hands in whatever way you can with those who are already deeply committed to the well-being of our world's older people. It is a first necessary step to us becoming ever more deeply committed to the well-being, not just of our older people, but of the whole world.