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The Forest Dweller and the Beggar

Originally published in The American Scholar.

When I turned sixty, I wanted to mark the occasion with a ritual I’d learned about from a friend whose background is Indian. In Hindu tradition sixty marks the transition between two ashrama, or life stages—that of the “householder,” the stage of power and responsibility to the family, and the stage of the “forest dweller,” in which your principal task is to start to detach yourself from life and prepare for death. If that sounds lugubrious, I was told, it shouldn’t. First, you’ve beaten the ancient Hindu odds by living so long, cause for celebration in itself, and second, your responsibilities to your family are now over, and you can begin to live for yourself.

The celebration marking this birthday is known as shastipurti (shasti means “sixty” and purti means “completed”), and I loved the way my friend, Indira Karamcheti, described it. It seemed, among other things, an elegant alternative to the American retirement party. She said, “You should invite everyone who’s ever been important in your life and have a fabulous dinner and party with singing and dancing—fireworks if possible. You should get presents from everybody. But the special presentation is a silver tray on which repose a perfect flower, a length of silk, a piece of fruit at the peak of ripeness, and a perfect but uncut gem. A priest should say prayers for your long life, health, and happiness. Sometimes people have a second wedding ceremony, re­dedicating themselves to their partners as part of their self-realization. Family and friends should be asked for their blessings, and it’s customary for the priest or a close friend to give a speech about you—sort of a This Is Your Life.” That was the description of the shastipurti that was offered by Indira’s family and that she reported to me. But when I asked the mother of another Indian friend about it, she scoffed at the idea of giving yourself a shastipurti celebration. It was something that other people did for you, ideally your students. It was a tribute to your professional accomplishments. This opinion discouraged me, and I dropped the shasti­purti.
Nevertheless, the Hindu concept of the stages of life stayed with me. In Hindu tradition the life cycle begins when a boy reaches the age of reason—between eight and twelve, depending on his caste. In a ceremony marking his “second birth,” a thread is tied around his waist. (For a woman, the thread-tying is part of the marriage ceremony, for she does not come of age until she is married.) The young boy is now in the first of four stages, each of which is marked by duties and responsibilities to himself and to his community. The duties of the student—the first stage—are to submit himself to a teacher and to accumulate wisdom. Pleasure in the present is sacrificed for the sake of power and pleasure in the future. As a teacher, I liked the formulation of the student stage. It seemed a healthy view of the tasks of youth and a bracing rebuke to our own endorsement of wild oats and meandering.

The next stage is that of the householder, whose duties are to amass wealth and power for his family and to experience for himself all the sensual pleasures of life. Who can do anything but applaud a tradition that includes the experience of sensual pleasure as one of the responsibilities of a mature human being? The householder stage, the time of most active engagement in the world, tends to be the part of life Americans think of as definitive, but it is only one among four for Hindus and not necessarily the most significant personally.
The third stage, that of the forest dweller, is the time for self-realization. His retreat from the world may be literal—into a forest—or it may not be. This is a time of scaling down but not of complete austerity and abnegation. The forest dweller, under no obligation to give up the companionship of a spouse, has the duty to prepare his spirit for the stage in which spirit will be all he has.

The final stage is that of the wandering beggar, who has no home at all and heads into the world alone, with nothing but a begging bowl, dependent on strangers for everything. This stage is voluntary, and not everyone is spiritually capable of it. Those who undertake it must be strong souls. But such wanderers are revered as sacred. They are sadhus, holy pilgrims.

Before I go any further with my explication of “Hindu tradition,” I have to print a warning label. I am not Indian, and I am not a student of Indian religion. I am probably mis­report­ing practice and distorting theory in the interests of making my point. This, of course, is in the great tradition of some American scholarship, and I claim as my inspiration Margaret Mead, whose Coming of Age in Samoa directed Americans to look to another culture in order to gain perspective on their own. The Samoan cultural practices she described turned out to have been at least partly imagined, but her critique of American pieties was no less valid.

Hindu tradition, as I understand it from my reading in Heinrich Zimmer’s classic Philosophies of India, is hard to disentangle from a caste system that most Americans would find repellent. If you know where you are at every stage of the life cycle in traditional Indian culture, it’s because you know who you are in a system of social assignment that begins at birth. You are born a Brahman, a Kshatriya, or a Vaishya, destined, whatever your talents and interests, to be a scholar or priest, a warrior or statesman, a farmer or tradesman. Less fortunately, you might be born a Shudra, whose life is devoted to service of the three higher castes, and, still less fortunately, you might be born an untouchable, fated to do the distasteful jobs no one else can take on without pollution. Nothing you do can get you out of your caste into another. Your lot is determined by your birth. Only the three highest castes participate in the sequence of duties that constitutes the life cycle, and moreover, these rights and responsibilities are only for men. So what I describe applies to far fewer than half of all Indians. But I will ignore these problems of equivalence and continue to cite Indian tradition as though it were general and easily translatable to a Western, democratic, post-industrial culture.

Here is how I apply the four Hindu stages to life as I have known it. “Householder” describes well enough the past thirty years of my life, “student” the thirty before that. “Forest dweller,” as I understand the concept, describes the stage of life I find myself starting better than does any other term I can think of. The stage I’m in now is not, to begin with, “retirement.” I am not retired. I am still working, still teaching at a university, still writing, still buying new tablecloths and upgrading appliances, still having dinner parties. My detachment is, I hope, obvious only to myself. Still, the sense that all this will end has already entered the way in which I do these things. Now perhaps I do them with more intensity and scrupulousness than I did before, but at the same time with less ultimate concern—what difference does any of it make?—and less ego. I am aware of sources of pleasure that I didn’t have time for when I was busy amassing wealth and power for my family. I enjoy my morning Cheerios. I feel at a privileged moment of ease. My parents, alas, are dead and no longer need to be cared for in their old age; my son is old enough to take care of himself. My obligations are to myself and my husband only. My activities—my pleasure in nature and art, my hours spent gardening and reading—may look like those of retirement, but they don’t feel that way. The Hindu notion of preparing myself spiritually for the trials of the next decades and for parting from life seem more to the point.

From what I’ve seen of extreme old age, the metaphor of the wandering beggar is apt. Of course we do not send our old folks out with begging bowls to wander the streets of Manhattan and Minneapolis. But we do send them to nursing homes and hospitals, where they are in the care of strangers. My mother in her last years seemed to spend nearly as much time in the hospital as in her own home, and even in her own home was dependent on people merely hired to take care of her, most of them women from the Caribbean who, thank goodness, had been brought up in a tradition of kindness to the weak. None of the money she lived on was money she was earning. In that sense too she was a beggar, and although she lived in mid-Manhattan, she lived as frugally as is humanly possible, eating almost nothing, never buying clothes, never allowing herself any entertainment. Her old age was a true stage of asceticism. In a way, I found it beautiful. Its minimalism, the way it refined both pleasure and necessity to the smallest point, was elegant. Without the experience of watching a parent die, I think I would have had no preparation at all for old age, for our culture ignores it completely. Watching my mother die (she died, as they say, of having lived, at the age of ninety-three), I learned to see extreme old age as something I needed to start preparing for, a trial that was a fit if not a pleasant conclusion to the experience of life.

It’s a measure of the poverty of Western formulations of the stages of human life that Jaques’s speech on the ages of man in As You Like It is quoted so often. We quote it because there’s no other passage in Western poetry describing the sequence of stages a person passes through, from infant to oldster. We quote it as wisdom and drive people crazy who have read the rest of As You Like It, because a noncontextual reading of this passage does so much violence to Shakespeare’s intention. Jaques is a posturing melancholic, and quoting him approvingly is like citing Polonius’s prudent maxims—“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”—as though they were the paradoxical, mysterious wisdom of the Gospels. Jaques’s view of human life is exceptionally sour, and he looks on all the ages of man with equal condescension and contempt, as though he were above them all.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

First mewling and puking, then whining and creeping unwillingly to school, we pass from infancy into our student years, according to Jaques. The lover sighs like a furnace, enraptured by an eyebrow, and the soldier seeks a “bubble,” reputation. Maturity is represented by a portly justice, full of self-congratulation and good advice, and that’s it before we start shrinking toward death, first a silly and pathetic old person in clothes too big, then in our second childhood, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Not a pretty picture.

No one in Duke Senior’s court in exile in the Forest of Arden thinks highly of Jaques, and his speech is immediately contradicted by the arrival on the scene of Orlando, the hero of the play, with his old servant, Adam, on his back. Adam is a man in the last stage of life, but instead of being “sans everything,” he has the most important thing of all, the love and gratitude of a person whom he has served well and who is determined to help him in return. The young man with an old man on his back was a visual emblem that would have been instantly recognizable to an Elizabethan audience, representing both the burden that old age imposes on the young and the appropriate assumption of that burden by the young, in a spirit of love and gratitude. Aeneas carrying his aged father, Anchises, on his back out of the ruins of Troy—a subject of woodcuts, paintings, and sculpture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (and well into the eighteenth century)—was the great original of Orlando’s entrance on the scene bearing Adam.

Orlando and Adam sit down to eat at the duke’s invitation. A courtier sings of bitter winds and freezing rains and how neither is as sharp as man’s ingratitude to man. The duke and Orlando both have unjustly been exiled, but both will return to their homes and powers eventually, Orlando enriched by the love of Rosalind. The dog-eat-dog world of Nature is capable of being softened by man’s love and care for his fellow man (and woman). The play, after all, is a romantic comedy, not a bitter satire such as Jaques might have written. Still, all that said, Jaques’s characterization of the life cycle is not “wrong.” There might be more to say; it could be presented more sympathetically, flexibly, and kindly; but his picture of one person playing many successive parts in time is quoted so much because it expresses something people believe about their own lives and have no other words to describe. We are first one thing, then another, then another very different, and it’s hard to believe, given that the outer form is so different and the successive drives and passions so different, too, that there’s something within that is in any sense “the same.” Jaques’s speech should be seen as a materialist, cynical view of life that down­­plays the spiritual, potentially transcendent side of human nature, yet so hungry are we for a description of the merest physical sequence of events of human life that we seize on it.

In trying to conceptualize the human life span, we have turned to various natural cycles for imagery. The day and the year are favorites. Embedded in Greek mythology is the Sphinx’s famous riddle: “What animal goes in the morning on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?” The answer, clear to no one but Oedipus, is “Man,” who in infancy creeps on hands and knees, in maturity walks erect, and in old age leans on a cane. In the imagery of the day, sunrise is birth, noon is vigor, sunset is the eclipse of power. In temperate climates, where the year has four distinct seasons, seasonal change has provided another metaphor for the life cycle. Spring is the season of youth, summer of full maturity, fall of decline, and winter of death.
Much effort in literature and philosophy used to go toward teaching people to accept death, and its inevitability—like that of the changing seasons—has always been a powerful argument. Montaigne, long before the existentialists, wrote that to learn to philosophize was to learn to die, and praised the ingenious workings of Nature, who so gradually increases our burdens and decreases our strength that death, which would seem horrible and unacceptable to us in our full youth, eventually seems like a friend. Nature leads us by the hand and gently, imperceptibly conducts us to that “miserable state” of death, step by tiny step, gradually making it familiar to us, “so that we are insensible of the stroke when our youth dies in us, though it be really a harder death than the final dissolution of a languishing body.” Nature speaks to us, as Montaigne imagines her, in these words: “If you have observed the revolution of my four seasons, they comprehend the infancy, the youth, the virility, and the old age of the world: the year has played his part, and knows no other art but to begin again; it will always be the same thing. . . . I am not prepared to create for you any new recreations.”

Christian tradition has largely ignored the stages of life. If we will live forever in eternity, what is the difference between being a baby or an adolescent, a young man or an old one? Youth, maturity, and old age are equally fleeting moments. Montaigne put it this way: If we discovered there was a species of fly that passed through its life in a day, would we bother to notice the difference between that fly in the morning of its life and the evening? Instead of stages, the dominant Christian metaphor, especially in the Protestant tradition, has been the journey, as in the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, which puts more emphasis on the atemporal events of a soul resisting or accepting God and less on the inevitable changes in a person’s soul dictated by age and biology.

Even the concept of “childhood” and the notion that a child is different from an adult in nature, not just in size, emerged late in the West, as the social historian Philippe Ariès demonstrated. It has, however, come to dominate Western culture. Since at least the early nineteenth century, it has been the stage of life we most study, the “seedtime of the soul,” in Wordsworth’s phrase, from which the others seem to evolve. From the English Romantic poets to Freudian psychoanalysts, fine minds have taught us to look closely at the early years. Freud described five stages of psychosexual development before the age of eighteen: from birth to about eight months, from eight months to two years, from two years to six, from six to eleven, and from eleven to eighteen, to which he gave the names, based on the successive sources of erotic satisfaction, “oral,” “anal,” “phallic,” “latency,” and “genital.” Once a person achieved genital sexuality, Freud recognized no further development. The id was essentially formed.

Ego psychologists followed human development further, and among them none was more interested in the life cycle and adult development than Erik Erikson. This child psychoanalyst, trained by Anna Freud but largely self-educated, was a brilliant clinician, a brilliant biographer, and in the 1960s one of the most respected thinkers in America. For various reasons, he has fallen far from the position of influence he held when he was a professor at Harvard, and his wonderful books, including Childhood and Society, Young Man Luther, and Gandhi’s Truth, which were canonical at that time, are no longer as widely read. But one achievement seems to endure: he added the term “identity crisis” to the English language. For a while, it was impossible to talk about the life of young people in America without mentioning the “identity crisis.” This, in turn, stamped out the template for the “midlife crisis,” which seems to be an equally enduring feature of our lives. In a larger sense, Erikson’s legacy has been two­fold: to teach us to see individual emotions in a cultural context, work he pioneered in his first book, Childhood and Society, and to extend our sense of human development into adulthood.

Erikson described an eight-stage life cycle, adding three adult stages to Freud’s five. He recast the five Freudian stages in terms that emphasized the individual’s ego integration and relationships to other people, believing that Freud’s view of development focused too exclusively on sexuality. Each stage, in Erikson’s view, had its own challenge, which was successfully met—or not. If not, the next stage became more problematic. Erikson believed that in fact life’s challenges usually are met. His work is upbeat, verging on the inspirational, addressing itself to successful development, and viewing life as a series of masteries acquired; it’s concerned less with sickness than with health, more with the normal than with the abnormal. At times he seems to be describing not a scientific reality but a moral possibility. But in any case, Erikson extended the period in which human development occurs, from eighteen, or the end of adolescence, into adult life and on to death. According to Erikson, we never stop forming ourselves. Every stage of life has its own drama and requires growth, until we die.

For many years adolescence was the center of his research and his clinical practice. Erikson’s “adolescence,” like Freud’s genital stage, spans the years from about eleven to eighteen, but it can go on—and tends to in contemporary American culture—even longer. In Erikson’s view, the adolescent’s task is one of self-definition, finding his place in the world. The adolescent is continually associating himself with groups and dissociating himself from them, testing how he is the same as or different from other people, working out where he stands in regard to his family and to society at large. He negotiates perilous waters and often seems extremely troubled, but his troubles are the rule for his age group. Everyone goes through this “identity crisis.” Thinking like a clinician in terms of case histories and a biographer through life stories, Erikson offered as proof of his theory his biographical study of Martin Luther, Young Man Luther. Popular experience rallied to prove his point. Once he mentioned it, people started seeing identity crises all over. A life event that emphasized adolescents’ separateness from the community was a useful addition to our cultural self-description. Our other rituals for this stage of life, especially religious ceremonies like confirmation, communion, or bar mitzvah, mark the adolescent’s acceptance into a community. None express the adolescent’s impulse to reject the community that seeks to embrace him. A feature of the identity crisis was what Erikson called the “moratorium,” a period in which adolescents seek actively to postpone adult responsibility. It may be the classic European Wanderjahr. It could be four years of college. Compare, for a cultural reality check, the Hindu concept of studenthood as a stage of acquiring knowledge and discipline.

Erikson’s sketches of life stages are not all persuasive, but adolescence is one of his successes. In his model of the life cycle, it is followed by young adulthood, from about ages nineteen to forty, in which the principal psychosocial task is to achieve intimacy. The negative pole of intimacy in Eriksonian terms is isolation. I think of the Unabomber as someone who did not negotiate this life task well. Doing so depends on having successfully established an identity, since intimacy involves some surrender, and few people are prepared to surrender even a little of what they are not sure they have achieved. I find Erikson’s formulation of the stage of young adulthood thin. There is no biography to elaborate its themes, as Young Man Luther did for adolescence and Gandhi’s Truth would for the next stage, and you could argue that intimacy is the natural result of identity formation—its graduation ceremony, marriage—and a necessary bridge to the next stage of generativity, but not a distinct stage in itself.

In maturity, from the ages of about forty to sixty-five, the defining task is helping future generations to live, which Erikson calls “generativity.” This is a tremendously important stage in Erikson’s view, because passing on skills and knowledge, in whatever way, is what life is about. The goal of generativity is most obviously fulfilled by producing and raising children, but it can also be accomplished through work, especially work that has an element of aiding people younger than yourself, like teaching. However, anything that helps other people in any way satisfies Erikson’s hypothetical human need for generativity. Those who fail to be generative suffer from stagnation or self-absorption.

Erikson’s social views are deeply inter­generational and emphasize the mutuality of strength. People exercise their powers on behalf of other people and feel more themselves in the process. Identity is not something static you acquire in isolation but something you work out in exchanges with others, parents needing their children in order to express their own generative impulses as much as children need their parents. As the child is nurtured by the parent, both become strong in the process, the child developing trust in the outer world, the parent feeling confirmed in the exercise of his powers. Mutuality was a crucial term for Erikson. He sincerely believed there was no virtue or justice unless the parties to a transaction profited from it equally. This ideal he saw embodied in Gandhi’s career, which was premised on the belief that oppression was as bad for the oppressor as the oppressed. And this is why Gandhi became for Erikson the representative of perfectly expressed maturity.

The final stage of life, after sixty-five, should produce what Erikson calls “integrity,” and the failure to do so produces “despair.” If the life cycle may be seen as a series of negotiations between the self and the world, a gradual enlargement of the sense of self and the arena of trust, this is the point at which the self works out its relationship with all mankind. If all the other challenges have been successfully met, if the individual has achieved intimacy and generativity, and so on, then his old age will be crowned, in Erikson’s view, with wisdom and self-acceptance.
To see King Lear, for example, as about a man who fails to achieve “integrity” and consequently falls into “despair” reveals the formulaic quality of Erikson’s description of this last stage of life. It is by far his weakest concept, perhaps because he had not experienced it himself when he wrote about it. The moralistic quality that undermines all of Erikson’s theory is nowhere more evident than in his description of old age, where it is least appropriate. At the end of life, so much of experience is biologically determined. If your mind has been taken from you, your experience at this stage will be very different from that of someone whose principal trouble is a faltering heart or crippling arthritis, and a heart sufferer, in turn, will have a totally different experience from someone whose health is radiant. It seems gratuitous to talk of “integrity” or “despair” and to invoke a kind of culminating life experience of “wisdom,” as Erikson does, when one out of four people over the age of eighty suffers from dementia. Erikson’s focus on the normal can seem at times a willful blindness to problems, a kind of sentimentality. Shakespeare had Edgar, Gloucester’s son, say in King Lear, “Ripeness is all,” which is a lovely thought, but as a response to the injustice of the life cycle, it’s hard to fault Lear’s equal and opposite fury.

There are few descriptions of old age by the old, for both the ambition and the concentration necessary to write are so often lost at this stage. The best account I know is by Florida Scott-Maxwell, an American, an actress in her youth, who moved to Scotland with her husband, raised a family, and, at the age of fifty, began a twenty-five-year career as a Jungian analyst. She lived well into her nineties and wrote The Measure of My Days, a combination journal and meditation on age, when she was eighty-four. It’s a rare report from the front lines of mortality.
“Another day to be filled, to be lived silently, watching the sky and the lights on the wall. No one will come probably. I have no duties except to myself. That is not true—I have a duty to all who care for me—not to be a problem, not to be a burden.” Shakespeare singled out the word “burden” as central to this stage of life by having Lear express his desire, when he divests himself of his kingdom, to make his way toward death “unburdened,” not seeing that in “unburdening” himself he would turn himself into an unwelcome burden to his elder daughters. Scott-Maxwell understands that the only power she has left of helping others is negative, not to burden. To register upon the earth minimally. To pass lightly. Certainly not to talk about her pain or ill health, which makes the healthy feel helpless, threatened, responsible. To have to be falsely cheerful, she says, is almost the worst part of the elderly person’s isolation. “Have we got to pretend out of noblesse oblige that age is nothing, in order to encourage the others? This we do with a certain haughtiness, realising now that we have reached the place beyond resignation, a place I had no idea existed until I had arrived there.” There is, in her view, an inner challenge to meet in old age, a spiritual test, but it is not the culminating, satisfying, Eriksonian experience of “wisdom,” of a life well lived. It’s the ability to accept the purposelessness of one’s own existence. Here at the end of it, tired from the exertion of having lived, we realize we just as well might not have, no matter how much good we have done. We are engaged with eternity, one eye on death, first “certain of continuity, then uncertain, then indifferent.” We are in the realm of the Wandering Beggar, outside the bustling business of life, dependent on others for help, our only obligation to take as little from others as we can before we disappear.

Hindu religion presents life as a sequence of duties and responsibilities. Erikson, Western culture’s most dedicated theorist of adult development, presents it as an evolving inner drama with a grand finale for the deserving. I find the Hindu formulation richer throughout, but especially for the end of life. It separates the two aspects of old age—the possibility of spiritual growth and the near certainty of biological failure—and locates them in two “stages,” the forest dweller and the beggar. In allowing for a stage of forest dwelling, about which there is something pleasantly selfish, and in admitting that there is a stage that, if it comes at all, is close to a living death, it reveals a worldly wisdom that makes Erikson’s hypotheses about integrity and despair sound like smalltown pieties. Back in the sixties, my generation, following the lead of the Beatles, looked to India for a corrective to Western life and values. Perhaps as we enter geezerdom it’s time for another immersion in the renewing waters of the imagined Ganges.