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Aging for Amateurs: King Lear shows how to find freedom in limitations

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Bert Keller

Freedom, as realized by the old king, may be the most important awakening that elders make. And our partial imprisonment (social restrictions) caused by the coronavirus puts us in a “paradoxical” position to grasp it.

Here is an old king, as free as a rich monarch can be yet caught in the chains of his own narcissism. In his blind self-deceit of taking flattery for truth, Lear makes the disastrous choice to leave his kingdom to be divided between his two fawning daughters and to cut out his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who loves him too well to feed him poisonous flattery.

Things turn out badly. When Lear recognizes the disastrous consequences of his vanity, he goes mad. Cordelia comes back with an army to restore her father’s legacy, but it is too late. She and her father are defeated and captured by the forces belonging to the older sisters. It’s time to face the music. “Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?” says Cordelia to Lear with the confrontational zeal of youth.

Her father’s madness turns to lucidity and his surprising response is for the ages. Pause and reread it, ponder it, lift it out of the play’s immediate context of their facing prison and possible death, and reflect on it as the condensed wisdom we may all hope to grow into in our last stage of life.

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison; / We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage ..."

The old king acknowledges the reality of his inevitable imprisonment. Looking beyond the literal, we know what the deeper meaning here is for us: not dungeon or detention center but the limitations and losses of advanced age. Our bodies weaken, our minds slow down, hearing fails and we move around with effort. And on top of all that, now we’re shut in by COVID-19. Yet here is 80-year-old Lear, saying “Let’s away to prison” with a willing heart! That is the amazing thing. He interprets unavoidable withdrawal in terms of inner freedom.

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Lear, awakened now from his self-absorption, is the drum major for those who are growing old. Not those who are still fighting to look young and play the old games of acquisition and power, who resist or deny the limiting processes of aging. But those who are growing into graceful acceptance of their age and who will embrace their years for the gifts they offer. The gifts, that is, of completing their life by (as Lear’s speech continues): blessing and forgiving, praying and singing, telling old tales and laughing at shimmering butterflies, listening to friends and swapping gossip about what’s going on in the world without getting enmeshed in it.

With his daughter — his feminine side, maybe his “inner child,” innocent, honest, feeling, spiritual — whom he no longer rejects but now embraces, Lear has at last come home to his true self. Now, writes Helen Luke, who illuminates Lear’s transformation in her book “Old Age: Journey into Simplicity”: “As the bird pours out notes of joy in its cage, the old man will sing out of his pure love of life in the prison of his enforced inactivity.”

And together they pray, the inward movement of mature age, and they sing, the outpouring movement, and they exercise the prerogative of telling the stories that they’ve lived. And I love that they will “laugh at gilded butterflies,” taking pleasure in the free, can’t-be-possessed wonders of nature! He had never had time for that nonsense when he was busy being a king.

But nowhere do I hear the chords of inner freedom so clearly as, “and hear poor rogues / Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, / Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; / And take upon us the mystery of things, / As if we were God’s spies ...”

Listening to the “poor rogues” (bless their hearts!) who are still playing games of getting ahead and messing up, but with the ear of one who’s “been there, done that” and sees power games from a longer, ironic perspective. I think that’s what “as if we were God’s spies” means. When one has grown into the mystery of things, power games and immortality projects can be spied for what they are.

What a hymn to freedom by an old guy who accepts enforced inactivity with a light heart! I think David Whyte is talking about this paradoxical kind of freedom, and what’s possible to do with it, when he writes in his book “Consolations”: “We withdraw not to disappear, but to find another ground from which to see; a solid ground from which to step, and from which to speak again, in a different way, a clear, rested, embodied voice, our life as a sudden emphatic statement and one from which we do not wish to withdraw.”

For the woman or man growing consciously into old age, with whatever limitations it may bring them, normal withdrawals or enforced inactivity, the very attitude of willingness to let go and embrace reality is a courageous break for freedom. In the good company of Lear and Cordelia, they can bless and forgive, pray and sing, take pleasure in gilded butterflies, listen to the ups and downs of the young and tell the old stories with heart. That’s the kind of elder I want to be!

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at agingforamateurs@gmail.com.

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