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How to Grow Old (1951) (sites.google.com)
476 points by sitajay 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

Great read, I just sent the link to some non-HN reading friends and my brother.

I am turning 68 in a few months and I try to do most of what he recommends. Enjoy younger family and acquaintances but also leave them to their lives, being satisfied to just enrich their lives materially and give them space. I had to think about the wording of his advice to persue ‘impersonal interests’ which for me is studying Go with a Korean Go master and learning those aspects of (general) artificial intelligence that most interest me, without much thought to practical considerations.

I prepare for my days 30 years by start to learn go.

What exactly are those aspects of general artificial intelligenxe, and how does learning Go relate?

Any advice for those curious and interested but inaccessible to an instructor?

Thanks in advance, and happy 68!

As interesting as Alpha Go is, for me studying Go as a game and my interest in AGI (fusion of classic symbolic AI with deep learning, and deep learning in general) are separate interests for me.

Advice for learning Go without an instructor: buy a Go playing program (I like CS Pro on my iPad) that can analyze your games, showing you what your bad moves are and showing an alternative.

Curious what you're working on and if you have any specific references - I'm also interested in fusion of classic symbolic AI with deep learning

The last paragraph, to me, is most poignant:

"...in an old man who has known human joys and sorrows, and has achieved whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble. The best way to overcome it -so at least it seems to me- is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. "

As Siddhartha listens to the river:

Siddhartha listened. [...] Already, he could no longer tell the many voices apart, not the happy ones from the weeping ones, not the ones of children from those of men, they all belonged together, the lamentation of yearning and the laughter of the knowledgeable one, the scream of rage and the moaning of the dying ones, everything was one, everything was intertwined and connected, entangled a thousand times. And everything together, all voices, all goals, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all that was good and evil, all of this together was the world. All of it together was the flow of events, was the music of life. And when Siddhartha was listening attentively to this river, this song of a thousand voices, when he neither listened to the suffering nor the laughter, when he did not tie his soul to any particular voice and submerged his self into it, but when he heard them all, perceived the whole, the oneness, then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was Om: the perfection.


In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to the flow, belonging to the oneness.

-Herman Hesse, “Siddhartha”

I see my most people around me unable to grasp this simple fact of life. They are so engrossed in the struggle to keep control, they don't even realize the amount of personal and otherwise unhappiness they create.

Hinduism has a concept of 4 stages of life called Ashrams[1]. Brahmacharya the first stage is focused on learning and acquiring knowledge. Second stage Grihastha is to enjoy the family. In the third stage called Vanaprastha one retires from the household and takes an advisory role. In the final stage of Sannyasa one should completely detach from the desires of the world.

I am a born Hindu(never practiced) and was well aware of this concept but never thought about it deeply. Now as I approach 40 and have kids, I realize how spot-on this ancient wisdom is.


I really appreciate this. I too am approaching 40, kids are growing, and I'm starting to think about my next chapter. This is really helpful that someone came up with a concept for this long before I was born.

Yeah I have also got a copy of Bhagavad_Gita[1] and started reading a few verses daily. Although it comes from Hinduism, text itself is pure philosophy and focuses on living a life of detached action.

Hinduism doesn't have a concept of universal commandments. Everyone is free to follow their own virtuous path called Swa Dharma which roughly translated to Personal Duties. Central message of Gita is to take actions inline with your Swa Dharma without caring for the outcome because you don't control it anyways.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita

> take actions in line with your Swa Dharma without caring for the outcome because you don't control it anyways.

This is a central tenet of Stoicism as well (though from what I gather Stoicism has a universal, rather than individual, notion of "virtue" or "nature" that one ought to live in line with).

> A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

-- Albert Einstein

> As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. [...] This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.

-- Charles Darwin, "The Descent of Man" (1871)

This goes with the adult/parent step. Your ego usually takes a deep hit. I'm sure lots of guys I've seen refuse to make babies did so because they knew it was the end of a side of them. They wanted to keep playing longer. Ego decrease is probably hardcoded for social purposes.

I definitely experienced this when I had a child. But along with it I also experienced a sort of loosening of my grip on how things “should” be, and ironically I feel more calm and centered than I did before I had a child.

Another weird shift is realizing that kids have their own internal worlds and experiences that have nothing to do with your own mind/ego. It’s kind of mind blowing.

Not all parents realize this second thing unfortunately

and not all adults need to be hand held by a newborn to realize others have different perceptions

Do you have kids?

It's not the "others" bit, it's the "your own kids" bit that makes it surprising for me - it's kinda like one day you pick up a pen with your non-dominant hand and it writes some words in an alphabet you don't recognise: How did it do that? Where did it even come across Akkadian cuneiform?

I still remember the confronting the realisation of this with my eldest when they said a word that I knew we, his parents, hadn't taught him. It's such a stark contrast when you're still having to manage a little person's toiletting that they nonetheless have an internal independency of thoughts and feelings.

Agreed. Even though the 2nd part is still hard to process for me, yet I did not forget who I was as a child .. but the contrast is yeah mind blowing.

I'd call it more of an ego shift if you account for reasons like "the world needs more people" and "I'll be a good enough parent that my child(ren) will be a net good," which definitely are pro-ego rationales. I think it's mostly the biological imperative in any case, though.

yeah shift if you prefer. I get your point though, it's definitely something very deep biologically, and often twist your ego in a new shape (I'd add "I'll be all that my parents weren't")

I'm 41 and I have still not managed to really confront the question of having children despite my wife being in her late 30s.

> I'm sure lots of guys I've seen refuse to make babies did so because they knew it was the end of a side of them.

Well, yeah...that sounds plausible. So how do they solve this?

What solved it for me was my partner. She wanted a kid (I was 41, she was 36), I just kind of went with it - screaming inside - but when she was born everything changed. That was a few years ago now and I'm still coming to terms with it. Just let it happen.

I never thought I'd have kids, but the right woman will overrule you. It's a much better experience than I thought, and sure, there are days when I think - this wasn't a great idea - but once your child is born, you're programmed to care for it - and it's nowhere as bad as I thought it would be.

> once your child is born, you're programmed to care for it

Someone should let my parents know that.


Bertram Russell had an unhappy childhood and was divorced three times, (married four).

This thread seems to be stretched beyond the original premise.

Yeah, I know what you mean. For myself, I find it helpful to remember that everyone is doing the best they can do to survive. And this can mean simply trying your best to look after yourself, if you aren't doing that well then you don't have much left over for anyone else.

I have no idea what you're trying to say or how it relates at all to my parents being abusive pieces of shit.

You're simply dead wrong that every person is somehow "programmed" to care for their offspring; don't go around spreading dangerous falsehoods.

I've seen that repeatedly. Women want babies way quicker it seems. I feel like lots of guys want to keep the couple relationship for a lot longer because it's fulfilling as is and they don't want to change the dynamics. Also I suspect lots of guys want to be their SO full source of happiness.

btw what did you think would be bad having babies ?

It's been my experience that the man wants the babies NOW and the woman want to wait a few years until she meets career goals, or wait to concentrate on health problems, or just don't feel ready yet.

I know several relationships/marriages that broke up because the man was ready for kids and the woman wasn't, yet never the other way around.



Your experience echoes mine almost exactly. Now I can't imagine a life without my daughter.

Her interests got me out of my comfort zone - I'm president of a girls basketball league - and develop aspects of myself that I may not have. I stepped into the position because she and her friends love the league and nobody else wanted to do it.

Thanks for the thoughtful words!

For some reason most parents will tell you it's amazing even if they are miserable. The reality is it could be amazing, or horrible, or anything in between.

Your life will change. Your relationship with your SO will change. You may feel significant financial stress. Kids aren't cheap, but this of course will vary with expectations and your SO's expectations. You will have to compromise a lot.

I don't regret it by any stretch, but that could just be Stocholms...

Ignore advice that's certain one path fits all.

I'm just trying to be the best husband and dad in the world. Having children is not the end of the world. On the contrary, it's a super challenge that lets a ton of our personality to shine through.

I think "usually" is important in this statement. There are people who have children because it's a small part of them that will extend into the future, or because they're afraid nobody will be around to love them in old age, etc.

yeah that's a common idea/goal. personally I really wanted kids when I had a deep relationship with someone.. and somehow I wanted to make copies of her .. don't laugh.

The mention of a river reminds of me of those ol' words by Norman Maclean [1]: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

As an early twenty-something, who thinks often too much about life and death and the wildness of it all, I like to think I'm preparing for death by carrying around a memento mori coin [2]. It's a healthy reminder that puts things in a golden perspective.

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsDnrFBpsBk [2]: https://prints.dailystoic.com/products/memento-mori

Neat coin! I just launched a coin project[1], but by carrying them in your pocket they’re meant to remind you to look for opportunities to help someone and then give it to them to pay forward. My first coin[2] has helped at least 3 homeless people in its short life.

[1] https://butterflycoins.org [2] https://butterflycoins.org/coins/2srf

My favorite quote of all, nice to see it around again. :)

Love those pendants!

Impersonal interests, receding ego, universal life, like rivers merging with the sea...

Yes, nice comforting lullaby. Never understood these types of texts.

“And time continues in its immemorial way of making everything and everybody look and feel like shit” – Martin Amis

This I understand. Sugar coating not necessary.

> look and feel like shit"

Well, but you see, there really are old people who (despite becoming frail and suffering pain) do not feel like shit.

Sure, there are many comforting lullabies offering a false hope (particularly religious ones), but this one doesn't strike me as one of those. (Remember that Russell was a staunch atheist, and did not tend to subscribe to false comforting beliefs.)

Just the opposite, it offers concrete advice, and embeds the process of getting older in a larger picture offering (secular) meaning.

There is no sugar coating - these two ways of viewing reality are just that - two different viewpoints. It is true that you can find comfort, peace, and happiness in old age. It is also true that your body will become more frail and you will eventually lose consciousness for the last time and turn into a pile of rotting bones in the ground. These facts are not mutually exclusive. To look at the latter and ignore anything that speaks about death and old age differently is just incurious and sad.

I think for some of these concepts that he describes, you have to read a bit more of his other works. That clarifies it beyond what you might guess a lullaby.

I think that the combination of factors that made our individual existence in this world possible it's by itself a miracle (without necessarily attaching religious connotations to it).

Hell, just the existence of humanity itself it's mind-blowing, as the conditions for life as we know it presented themselves.

We should be thankful of the time we are given in this world, and make the best of it, regardless of its length.

Yeah wow that's a beautiful passage and analogy. Didn't realize Bertrand Russel was a poet as well as a mathematician!

To be fair, this is not poetry, this is (good) philosophy; by the way, analogy (isomorphism etc.) is a powerful tool in mathematics and not just in poetry.

Good philosophy and poetry are often interwined, one almost begets the other.

Ehh... I know you mean this well, but for those of us into more rigorous philosophy of science I can't fully agree :)

Why's that? There's a lot of pihlosophy of science that can be elegantly articulated.

Elegant articulation can be part of good science and good poetry, granted, but in many other aspects the goals of philosophical writing and poetry are sort of opposed.

FWIW, I find eg Nietzsche's (flowery poetic) writing terrible philosophy, in many ways.

Arguably the hermeneutics/analytical divide is (partially) about this issue.

Prose poetry.

he's most widely know for his work on philosophy

Actually, I am not sure what to make of this... Is he describing the entropy increase that eventually kills us?

I think he is explaining the expansion of ego with age. We should try to expand our ego to include more and more "impersonal" pursuits that force use to think more about the world and people and not our internal thoughts/emotions/memories.

Its about being less self-centered and instead pursuing life as a member of the human race.

He's saying that it's not MY kids are more important than YOUR kids and that MY work is more important than YOUR work. If you strip your actions from your ego, they become more sound as they are not biased or bloated by your greed or your envy towards others. You are able to applaud other people's success and wish them well without grudge, and you're able to support them without need to get anything back from them.

It seems like a good portion of the essay was tongue-in-cheek, but this part really struck me. I came here to post exactly this excerpt, and was glad to see someone beat me to it.

that is really an interesting way to look at growing old. totally makes sense. I just noticed that older people in movies who are portrayed as being obsessed about personal matters come across as particularly charmless.

"An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being."

I think he's describing Ego Death https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_death it reminds me of this quote from André Gide:

"But, above this, there is still a higher state, to which Goethe achieves, the Olympian. He understands that originality limits, that by being personal he is simply anyone. And by letting himself live in things, like Pan, everywhere, he thrusts aside all limits until he no longer has any but those of the world itself. He becomes banal, but in a superior way.

It is dangerous to achieve too early that superior banality. If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it, or else it is pitifully dissolved and is no longer even original."

"Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent."

- André Gide

Surprised I'd never heard of André Gide until now. Quite the body of work. Nice to see some Goethian influnece too

Bertrand Russell is awesome, there are quite a few good interviews with him on the youtube, my favourite is this one, on philosophy itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvOcjzQ32Fw

Being in the company of your child's family is indispensable in late old age(part of life when one is physically and mentally incapable of excising things OP mentioned). Joy that old folks gets by spending time with grandchildren is irreplaceable. Witnessing the daily life of child's family and being part of it is excellent for psychological health, helps mind stay in present and not drift back to past or other unnecessary worries.

What your child feels about you staying with them is something that you inculcate in them when they are young. If you didn't bother sharing space with your parents in the time of there need then your child won't either.

What if you don't want children? Hence, you'll have no grandchildren.

> But if you are one of those who are incapable of impersonal interests, you may find that your life will be empty unless you concern yourself with your children and grandchildren. In that case you must realise that while you can still render them material services, such as making them an allowance or knitting them jumpers, you must not expect that they will enjoy your company.

Quite practical.

Unfortunately, "you must not expect that they will enjoy your company" applies to lots more than "children and grandchildren". That is, I mean, age discrimination.

> As regards health, I have nothing useful to say as I have little experience of illness. I eat and drink whatever I like, and sleep when I cannot keep awake. I never do anything whatever on the ground that it is good for health, though in actual fact the things I like doing are mostly wholesome.

This is terrible advice fwiw. It might have been less terrible in 1951 before the explosion of terrible food choices. Science shows the benefits of exercise and proper nutrition + calorie restriction. You are very likely to age better if you avoid bad lifestyle decisions.

Eat well. Sleep lots. Exercise.

We really shouldn't be spreading messages to the contrary. Look down at your gut. It's killing you. It's destroying your organs with high blood pressure, insulin resistance and fatty liver tissue and likely doing so without causing any discernible symptoms. You won't know you're dying until it's too late.

> As regards health, I have nothing useful to say as I have little experience of illness.

I interpreted this sentence as a disclaimer that what follows is explicitly not advice.

>I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

I fear death because I fear no one will look after the things that I cared about in the same passion and in the same way that I do. I guess I am too sentimental for what I've done to the things I love.

What makes you think noone will choose a similar path to yours with the same passion?

I think you have a solvable problem. Just find people who do care about things as much as you do.

This is IMO the directly wrong approach.

Realise instead that no-one, not even your own offspring (see comments elsewhere on that one), will share your exact approach, your exact balance of desires, your exact passion. Give it up. Death will come and force the situation; don't be beholden to that which can never be achieved.

"Of remoter ancestors I can only discover one who did not live to a great age, and he died of a disease which is now rare, namely, having his head cut off."

Russell published "The Conquest of Happiness" 26 years before this essay. I spot all of the causes of happiness from "The Conquest" in this essay: Zest, Affection, Family, Work, Impersonal Interest, Effort & Resignation :)

Check out https://happy.runningroot.com/

HAPPY is a modern and visual journey through The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell’s age-old advise on happiness. It provides a convenient framework that helps establish mindfulness towards the causes of unhappiness and understanding while embracing the causes of happiness.

HAPPY provides concise notes on what to look out for using many examples from philosophy, history and art. Given that happiness is a vast subject, the framework in HAPPY is a practical way of embedding Russell's ideas in your life without going too deep into the science, psychology and philosophy. It helps you benefit from these understanding with a constant mental awareness that sustains your happiness for productivity and health.

This struck a chord, in simple terms he's saying develop interests which you can pursue for the sheer joy they give you. Unfortunately, most people are always looking for a net benefit from everything - relationships, work, hobbies

This is nice and I like the advice to not dwell on the past. I can see the temptation to do this as I grow older.

One sentence, though, I disagree with is "One’s thoughts must be directed to the future." I understand what he is saying, but I think better advice would be "One’s thoughts must be directed to the present." His main advice seems to be to find something that interests you enough so that you are happy to do it every day - to me, something like this keeps you focused on the present and not the future.

Russell’s thoughts on ego-recession remind me of yesterday’s AMA with Jason Rohrer, where he talks about how his shifting sense of place in the world informs the design of his latest game, “One Hour One Life”. The game is a survival/crafting MMO where you start as the baby of another player, completely helpless, and try to do as much as you can to move civilization forward before you die.

It’s interesting to compare this to one of his earliest games, Passage, which deals with a similar theme but from the perspective of a single individual.


What does he mean by this "My first advice would be to choose your ancestors carefully." ?

It's a joke. You can't choose your ancestors, what he's saying is that the experience of getting older is dictated in no small part by the genes you inherited. Looking at your family's medical history will inform you of what might be in store for you.

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