I just read a beautiful blog by Prof Desmond O’Neill. He talks about ‘virtue ethics’ as being something we can draw on as we age, particularly in the way that they remind us that “what makes life good is intrinsically fragile.”
Aristotle believed that we can only develop what he called ‘phronesis’ – it’s usually translated as practical wisdom – as we age. You just can’t have it without experience. For example you might learn that it’s important to be honest when you’re young but it’s only through life experience that you realise there are occasions when absolute honesty can actually hurt those around you and may not always be the way forwards. This is practical wisdom.
Drawing on Aristotle’s concept then, O’Neill suggests that “with ageing we can become our truest selves if we allow ourselves to embrace an alternative notion of activity, that of practicing the right attitudes.” Doing this important and demanding personal work builds resilience towards fragility, he says, and encourages “self-realization and flourishing while acknowledging the vulnerability of this striving.”
O’Neill’s blog is a review of a major conference on gerontology. Talking about a paper that was presented there by Hanne Laceulle he refers to “three pernicious and persistent popular narratives of ageing.” These really made me think and want to reasses my own contribtuion to the field, small though it may be. Read on, and you’ll see why.
These narratives, as Laceulle and O’Neill point out, “include that of Active Ageing, highly productivist and with little room for our existential vulnerability; the decline narrative of ageing; and the age-defying narrative, with its emphasis on staying young, not acknowledging growth, a self-effacing strategy doomed to fail and in denial of our existential vulnerability.”
I’ve been aware right from when I started photographing older athletes that while of course they are inspiring they can only inspire us if we’re not constrained by physical illness. Not everyone wants to be or indeed can be a sportsman or woman. But there is indeed a danger of challenging the negative and tired stereotype of passive ageing and replacing it with another steretype, one that can become an insidious cultural diktat, namely that of ‘active ageing’.
So I really love O’Neill’s blog which for me is so timely: a plea for interpreting ‘activity’ in its broadest possible sense, namely including also the notion of inner activity, which can be practised irrespective of one’s physical condition. Living a long life gives us the opportunity to practise balancing the demands of the self and of the world, as he points out, “in a way that is flexible and context-dependent. In this way we can see practising virtue as trumping the unhelpful tropes of passively surrendering or actively fighting ageing.”
I hope I can manage to photograph older people involved in a full range of activities, including activities that don’t always involves the body. O’Neill’s blog articulated this notion of a broad interpretation of activity so beautifull I realy wanted to share it with you here. So thanks if you’ve read to the end. This has ended up being much longer than I intended. I’d be very interested in what you think about this, so do respond if you feel moved to do so.
Here’s the blog: Desmond O’Neill: A gerontological fear of missing out