Episode 4: Aging for Mortals
In this episode: What if we started from the knowledge that, no matter what, we will die? And that if we're lucky, we'll grow old first? How would that change how we live? How would that change our politics?
Featuring Albert Banerjee (NBHRF Chair in Community Health and Aging and Assistant Professor of Gerontology, St. Thomas University) talking with host Sally Chivers about:
- what death certificates reveal and hide
- how death fear fuels age panic
- mortality vs dying
- living and learning in the Himalayas
- yoga and the paradox of limitations
- the dangers and benefits of mindfulness
Read Madeleine Fortin's Arthur story The Deserving Senior and Aging with Sally Chivers
Learn more about Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death.
Read Richard Rohr on Bright Sadness in his book Falling Upward
Find Oliver Burkeman's Time Management for Mortals
Find out more about Annmarie Mol's definition of care in The Logic of Care
Watch a short video Albert Banerjee wrote called “Love and Death in the Time of COVID”
Albert Banerjee 00:05
We are mortal beings. It's how we reproduce as a species. For the joy of a birth, someone needs to die. And that's a sad fact. Thinking about death through concepts of disease and risk: it turns it into a pathology, as opposed to something that we love.
Sally Chivers 00:29
Welcome to Wrinkle Radio where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your host Sally Chivers, joined this episode by Albert Banerjee. WE are so glad you're here to listen to us talk about aging for mortals.
Albert Banerjee 00:51
In my class just last week, we were talking about biomedicine and causes of death. And one of the ways I bring my father into my class is I put up his death certificate. He died five years ago. Now in every death certificate, you track the biological sequence of death: so pneumonia and blood disease is really what killed him on the certificate. And you know, when you see that you see how many people die of the flu, or coronary heart disease and you can have that kind of a conversation. And it seems real and objective. And it's certainly one way of talking about reality. But then I told them the story of my dad coming as an immigrant from India, who had really loved the British system in England -- and they know how to colonize by instilling a sense that everything British is the best. So my father had that sense going to England. And when he arrived, he was welcomed as a brown skinned man, so not very well. And to make matters worse, he fell in love with a white woman. And this was a time when mixed race marriages were not tolerated or accepted. And one of his coping strategies was drinking. So for most of his life, he struggled with alcohol. I was telling the students the story and the way in which it played into how he died because it's fundamental. And the only way I could capture him as a human in a context was through these stories. And in storytelling, I was talking about colonialism, I was talking about addiction, I was talking about emotional trauma. And I think stories become a very rich way of making sense of the human condition as we grow older, and they've become very important for me to try and move beyond pathology. Thinking about death through concepts of disease and risk: it turns it into a pathology as opposed to something that we live.
Sally Chivers 02:55
That's Albert Banerjee, and NBHRF chair in Community Health and Aging and assistant professor in gerontology at St. Thomas University in Canada.
Sally Chivers 03:07
Recently, a Trent University student reached out to interview me for an article she was writing for the student newspaper, the Arthur. Shout out to Madeline Fortin. I really enjoyed our conversation, and she did a wonderful job of the story. During our conversation, she asked me whether I thought people feared aging because they fear death. I do think that, but to be honest, my own fear of death and dying has stopped me from really digging deeply into that connection. I knew that Albert Banerjee would be able to help. So I reached out to ask him Madeline's question.
Albert Banerjee 03:40
Yeah, that's a good question that link between fear of aging and fear of death. I think they're profoundly related. And certainly, we live in a culture that has been accused of denying death. I think Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called The Denial of Death in 1973. I don't think that's exactly the case. I think we've medicalized death. We talked about risk factors; we talk about diseases; we don't really talk about or engage with death until it happens to someone close to us. And that's a horrible time to start to learn about death,
Sally Chivers 04:18
You can already start to see why that story that Albert told about his father's death certificate is so important. There's such a difference between the story of the life that led to some of the conditions that were the ultimate cause of death. And whatever story the medical system might tell about somebody's dying. This is a really gracious answer too from Albert. And it was very gracious of him to respond to me bringing him this question because he has gently reminded me over the gobsmacking 13 years or more that we've worked together that there's an important difference between researching death and researching mortality, which is really what he does.
Sally Chivers 04:56
Guilty as charged! I have definitely done that. You know how when someone likes elephants, they start to only get elephant-themed gifts: they might get placemats or figurines or fridge magnets. And soon their houses are overflowing with elephants they didn't even get to pick and they kind of start to hate them. They don't really want to tell people that they don't even really like elephants anymore. It wasn't even really about elephants in the first place. Yeah, well, I've definitely added to Albert's uninvited collection of death articles.
Albert Banerjee 04:56
The difference between death and mortality, I think, is an important one, and it took me a while to learn that. I often would say I was interested in death. And then people would send me, you know, YouTube clips or articles on end of life care, on living wills, on euthanasia, or now medically assisted aid in dying.
Albert Banerjee 05:49
And I would say, no, I'm actually not interested in that. I'm not interested in the sort of technical aspects of dying or even dying, per se. I'm interested in, you know, the definition of mortality, according to Oxford is subject to death. It's a state of being. So I'm interested in what it's like to be subject to death, to be mortal, to live in finite time, to be vulnerable, to be embodied.
Sally Chivers 06:17
That hits really uncomfortably close to home. I think many of us could probably convince ourselves that since we're not currently facing the threat of death, at least for those of us who aren't, that death is something that somehow happens to other people, othered people even. But the way Albert puts it there, we can't really avoid the fact that we are indeed all mortal. And the physical signs of that mortality tend to show up as we grow older. That is part of why we panic about signs of aging on the body. That is part of why we're vulnerable to age panic. And yeah, we're taught to loathe those signs by the sordid anti aging industry. But that industry is preying on the idea that we fear death, and that we want to believe that we can prevent it.
Albert Banerjee 07:10
Our approach to death is through narratives of control. So it's a false promise, ultimately, that we can control death, we can control disease. We have made some remarkable achievements. But at the end of the day, we are mortal beings. It's how we reproduce as a species: for the joy of a birth, someone needs to die. And that's a sad fact. And I don't think we have developed, let's say, the cultural muscles to grapple with the fact that we will die and we will lose everything we love. When I was doing my research, my Masters on death and dying, what surprised me -- because everyone says it's a taboo subject -- was how much people wanted to talk about it, and how much they relished the opportunity of someone who might be willing to hear that they had somebody die, and that they could just talk about it normally. Richard Rohr has this term, bright sadness: there's a beauty and a tragedy at the same time that I don't think we're particularly, in our culture, able to hold together. But in aging studies, we've been trying to sort of ... how do we talk about aging, while respecting the decline, the physical things that happen that are not necessarily pretty and are difficult and lead you to death, while holding the richness of experience and understanding and learning that can happen as you grow old If you do so I think reflexively and thoughtfully, which most people do. So mortality sort of pushes me to ask those kinds of questions. It resists being pathologized and pushed to the end of life.
Sally Chivers 08:43
Thst brought to mind an experience I've had so many times where I've been invited to speak at a conference or on a panel. And I always know that my talk will come last in the day or last in the weekend, unless someone's speaking about death and dying. And then I know I'll be second last. And I've often wondered how the conversation throughout the event might change if we talked about aging first. How that might shift the stakes. I love how Albert is turning that pattern on its head in his research by making the focus mortality. What if we put mortality front and center? What if we started by thinking about the fact that if we're lucky, we'll grow old? And that no matter what, we will die? How does that change how we live? How does that change how we think. How does that change our politics? How does that change what we learn?
Albert Banerjee 09:37
I'm teaching aging and health. And one of the things I decided to do -- because normally the way it's taught is the last week you deal with death and dying, sort of the end of life stuff. I actually started with that. And I thought, let's start with death and dying. Let's just set the rules of the game that you're going to die and lose everything you love, and we have to create Health within that context: it's a health for mortals or Gerontology for mortals, so to speak. So we talk about the kind of relationships we can have with death. And we listen to some people from hospice who are trying to share the wisdom that they have gained working with people who are dying about how to live. You know, we don't get a chance to talk about death -- our relationship to death, our experience about death --very often, and not in public. And it accords I think, with their intuitive understanding. In the first week, I asked students about their understanding of health, and it is multi-dimensional. It involves meaning and it includes disabilities and aging. I think we get trained out of this understanding. And so I'm trying not to do that. We're looking at Burkeman's bestseller, Four Thousand Weeks, which is time management for mortals. It's asking people of any age to consider their finitude when thinking about how they manage their time and encouraging them to make choices that truly matter for them. There's this paradox of limitation that when we accept limitation, when we accept mortality -- it's not easy necessarily to do and there's skills and knowledge that can help us do it -- But we often open up into something more positive: like in palliative care, there's so much love there, you know, and so much interest in love and connection.
Sally Chivers 11:32
It can make a difference what we encounter and what we read in our young adult life. You might remember from the last episode of Wrinkle Radio, I became an age studies scholar, in part because of a novel I read when I was 17. Well, it turns out that not only is Albert teaching students, many of whom may be around that age, about mortality now, but his own journey towards his research on death and dying, started at a similar age to mine.
Albert Banerjee 12:02
I got into it in a rather haphazard way. As a 17 year old who was a little bit disillusioned with what I was going to do with my life. Not sure that I liked the options in front of me. I remember William Wordsworth poem, In getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Sally Chivers 12:22
If I had expected that Albert was going to quote Wordsworth in our conversation, and I did not, I would have guessed that it would be the Intimations of Immortality ode. But instead, it's this sonnet. The World Is Too Much with Us Late and Soon. It's a poem from the early 19th century. And Wordsworth is lamenting how his and people's attention is being drawn away from the natural world towards the pressures of the Industrial Revolution, that valued people for their productivity.
Albert Banerjee 13:01
It just seemed like, you know, there wasn't compelling options for careers or things to do. And, you know, at that age, I was in psychology. So I got into thinking about existential psychology and reading the existentialists who write a lot about meaning and purpose and confronting your mortality to gain some clarity on your life and how to live authentically. And that really interested me. I think it gave me courage to try and carve out a life that was my own. And I became interested in: what are the costs of a society that avoids death? You know, if mortality is important for living a life that's your own, that's meaningful, what are the costs of avoiding death, and I ended up doing a master's thesis on death and dying, and how we think about that.
Sally Chivers 13:56
I met Albert after that master's thesis when he was doing a dissertation on violence in long term care. But I knew that when he finished that degree, he spent part of the year in the Himalayan Mountains. It was a standing joke in our research team that we didn't know where he would be phoning in from - we met by phone this was in the days before zoom - So I asked him whether that joke bothered him.
Albert Banerjee 14:17
Well, it was somewhat extreme. Because I was commuting between Stockholm and Northern India and you cannot get two more different places on the planet. And so it was so mind blowing to go from one place to another and see how radically different we can organize our lives. Stockholm is like classical music and India's like jazz. You look at the driving. It's understandable why, in India, you feel your way through things in a way that in Sweden, you're falling rules.
Sally Chivers 14:52
So the joking didn't bother him at all. It was important to me though that I tried to understand something I missed the opportunity to understand at the time, which is what was the draw to the Himalayas? And what did being there offer to him working as a mortal being invested in changing the conversation about aging, and changing the conversation about death and dying?
Albert Banerjee 15:17
My explorations in India and with meditation and yoga are part of, I think, a response to approaching mortality through these discourses of risk and disease and control. So if we're going to think of a different approach that's not control oriented, where are we going to learn to do this? That's why I love feminist care theory, like the logic of care by Annemarie Mol. It's a different way of being in the world that's not governed by a fantasy of mastery, and you still have agency and ... I forget ... she has a lovely definition of care where you're acting while learning to let go. It's another way of being in the world. And I found with my explorations of yoga, certainly the way my partner Sachne Kilner, she taught it, was about being in the world differently. It wasn't about stress relief or exercise or flexibility or anything like that. And so I went to India to study yoga at an ashram in the Himalayan Mountains. And because I want to be exposed to people who were learning a more, shall we say, authentic version, or less westernized version, perhaps, to really get a sense of it. It was a yogic ashram. But you know, I wasn't doing any of the postures. But that's what we think of when we think of yoga is the poses. But that's only one dimension. This ashram was largely oriented around philosophy, discussion and meditation. And I really came to see that it's a way of understanding suffering and a way of understanding satisfaction in a world that's impermanent. It's amazing to be surrounded by a community of people, many of them from the west who have built their lives around yoga and meditation and who value cultivating that state of being and paying attention to being. Many of them were very accomplished people as well. But no one cares about the accomplishments. At the end of the day, it's part of what they call a changing field, where you have a job one day, you don't the next. If you get attached to that you're gonna suffer. And they all know that.
Sally Chivers 17:27
That's a lesson that I'm still trying to learn as an overachieving academic. A sort of "the job won't love you back" but in a much more profound way. This moment in our conversation was a real gut check for me. It's one of a few moments that went over and over in my mind and heart after we had finished talking. And I was so moved and grateful to learn that Albert had also been thinking about what we had talked about, and he took some time to record a few more thoughts about his time in India and send them to me. Here's some of what he said:
Albert Banerjee 18:01
It's probably the happiest I've ever been. And that's kind of strange, given how insecure my life was. I did not know where my next paycheck would come almost. I was living on a postdoc salary. And then that ended and I had to apply for grants and hope to God that would come in. Otherwise, I would be far from home in the mountains with quite a lot of student debt. And somehow I managed to pull it off. Very insecure, a very strange career decision also. And yet I was really, really happy. Profoundly so. and not stressed about things, especially not when I was hanging out with my friends at the ashram. When I was speaking with professionals here in Canada, yeah, I tended to get a little bit stressed about what I was doing, but it was the happiest time of my life.
Sally Chivers 18:56
I love hearing this from Albert. And, I mean, who doesn't love hearing about the happiest time of someone's life? It helped me to understand what he was going through at that time. And it also helped me to understand what he'd been saying all along about how much we needed to go outside of our existing traditions to change care structures. But I still got a little nervous. The reason I got uneasy is because, like no doubt many of you, I've gotten far too many emails advising me that I gotta handle my work stress by incorporating mindful moments, to give one example. I know I'm not alone in being asked to work far too hard with little support, besides an opportunity to breathe for a minute or participate in a free online yoga class. All of these feel like they add to my list of things to do and they become things I'm not doing or I'm not doing properly. And yet, even if I was in a position to take up all of those invitations, they would not change what really contributes to the anguish of a mortal, limited existence: being pressured towards the poll of productivity. I know that's not the mindfulness that Albert's talking about here. But I had to ask directly to make sure I understood.
Albert Banerjee 20:17
I think there are dangers of using both mindfulness and yoga as tools to justify a lack of care or predatory capitalism: you know, just use mindfulness to deal with the anxiety of being insecure, for instance. And I think quite frankly, it's being put to that use as well. As I see it, these are skills, wisdom traditions, to help us deal with the fact that we are mortal and live in a finite world and need to learn to live with limitations. And there are wonderful resources to learn how to do that. But they do not deny politics at all, or engaging in the social world to make the social world better. In fact, I would say that they can help you do your work with social change in a more effective way because you're taking care of yourself, but the two are not linked. So you can be a meditator and you can be completely apolitical, or you can be a meditator, and you can be politically motivated. You still need feminism; you still need political economy.
Sally Chivers 21:33
Okay, so we're talking about yoga here. But we're not talking about the health benefits of yoga, the importance of staying active, fall prevention through flexibility and balance. So what does this have to do with aging then?
Albert Banerjee 21:48
When we think about growing old, these are wonderful resources because they help us deal with frailty and the limitations that our bodies impose on us. People like Thomas Moore and Bill Randall have spoken about the nudge of aging: that it can nudge us towards more contemplative perspectives. I think it's very useful, but it does in no way deny the need for care. In fact, it's, I think, a more caring orientation. Because if you realize that you're internally satisfied, and we cultivate that kind of mentality, this notion of predatory capitalism or needing to pillage the planet and exploit workers for someone else's gain, just is even more pathological.
Sally Chivers 22:45
As many of you know, on Wrinkle Radio, we acknowledge that aging and the topics we study are part of our own experience. That comes through in every aspect of what Albert talked about in our interview. But I still, with some trepidation, asked him how he thought about his own death, and whether he was afraid of dying.
Albert Banerjee 23:04
Yeah, I'm gonna have a big laugh whenever I get that terminal diagnosis, if I'm lucky enough to, you know, not get smashed in a car accident or something like that because I'm gonna go, you know, all the thoughts and fears, and it's just gonna be ironic. It's like, Here you go. So I'm gonna have a laugh, and I'm going to be terrified. I'm going to have all these feelings. And then hopefully, the practice will help me kick in, They talk about building a muscle. But yeah, it's going to be a big laugh. When that happens to me, I think I will be afraid and I will mourn and not feel ready. I mean, I just feel like I'm getting things now. I'm just starting to figure life out so it'll be a big joke.
Sally Chivers 23:49
So Albert's ultimate demise will be a big cosmic joke, but it's not one I'm quite ready to laugh at. I have to admit that despite all the heartening talk about spirituality, as Albert was answering, I superstitiously knocked every piece of wood I could find in the Airbnb I was staying out while we talked. And I also want to add that Albert was a picture of patience and kindness while I navigated recording from the road on rural internet.
Sally Chivers 24:24
So I've benefited from his yogic practice in this episode of Wrinkle Radio in more than one way, and I hope that you have too.
Sally Chivers 24:32
This has been Wrinkle Radio. Thank you to our special guest, Professor Albert Banerjee, and thank you for listening. We really appreciate it. Show Notes are located at Sallychivers.ca/wrinkleradio, where you can also find full transcripts of each episode. Until next time, remember: don't panic. It's just aging.