The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).

This week, The New Yorker, on Twitter, is sponsoring a tweet-fest, calling on followers to tweet their all-time favorite New Yorker piece. My first response was a tongue-in-cheek, “The Cartoons”!

I’ve been reading the New Yorker, a weekly, for over 40 years, but these days when I intone the magic words, “Speak, Memory,” I often receive in reply a feeble tweet, even falling short of the 140 character limit. Anyway, it takes more than a tweet to recall a full piece, at least for this twitterer. I do recall one of my favorite all time cartoons, from the mid-80’s. I taped it to my at-work monitor, until my boss at the time told me he didn’t get the joke. I brought it home and taped it to the icebox. Just so, most of the articles I remember are those I tried to encourage others to read, too. I remember the William Finnegan piece on surfing off San Francisco (August 24, 1992); I mailed it to an old surfing buddy.

Ian Frazier, in “Hungry Minds: Tales from a Chelsea Soup Kitchen” (May 26, 2008), wrote what has become one of my all time favorites. In “Hungry Minds,” Frazier explores at least three kinds of hunger: physical (the soup kitchen), intellectual (the writers’ workshop), and spiritual (the church). Must every hunger be fed? One might hunger for anything (war or peace; duty or love; work or play; music or silence; risk or safety; celebrity or privacy; memory or amnesia; nirvana or grace), and the human appetite seems insatiable. Then there are the thirsts, which Frazier’s article also touches on (to belong; for community; for recognition; to tell one’s tale; and a thirst to feed the hungry). Human thirst seems unquenchable. What else can explain Twitter?