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Dancing into old age

By Daniel Klein, Special to CNN
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat March 16, 2013
Life on a Greek island, where Daniel Klein found people practicing the art of growing old.
Life on a Greek island, where Daniel Klein found people practicing the art of growing old.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Klein follows philosopher Epicurus to Greece to follow his advice on aging
  • Epicurus said the communion of friendship, enjoyed unhurriedly, was the best possession
  • In Greece, Klein finds older people living calmly, slowly, with appreciation and acceptance
  • Play has intimations of the divine, Klein believes, and he saw that in a dance in a tavern

Editor's note: Daniel Klein is the co-author, with Thomas Cathcart, of the international best-seller, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar." A graduate of Harvard in philosophy, his most recent book is "Travels with Epicurus."

(CNN) -- As I coast into old age, no philosopher speaks more meaningfully to me than that ancient Greek, Epicurus. For starters, there is his delicious dictum:

"It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness."

I reread that lovely maxim recently while sitting on a taverna terrace on the Greek island of Hydra, a place where I have spent months at a time over the years. This time I was on the island to think about my new stage of life and what it might offer. One of my suitcases was packed with books by my favorite philosophers.

Daniel Klein
Daniel Klein
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At a table near mine, I saw my old friend, Tasso, a man about my age who is a retired judge. Tasso was playing cards with three friends, also white-haired, and from the ease of their chatter and laughter, I knew I had come to the right place to learn how to live an old age that both Epicurus and I would approve of.

Above all, such an old age would fully embrace friendship and playfulness. Epicurus wrote, "Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship." But even more significantly for me at this time, he was convinced that we old folk have a unique opportunity to elevate companionship to its highest level. Epicurus believed that we oldsters no longer ever need to treat our fellows as means to an end and therefore we always can enjoy them as ends in themselves.

Defy your age: what truly helps you stay younger inside and out

In old age, we can be free from what the philosopher called, "the prison of everyday affairs and politics." Retired from business and striving, we no longer need to see other people as a way to close a deal or get a raise or obtain a contract. Having said goodbye to all that, we are left with pure camaraderie, the kind that Tasso and his fellows were contentedly enjoying.

Tasso wanted nothing more from his tablemate, Kostos, a retired fisherman, than to simply be with him -- to pass the time with him, to talk with him, even just to sit in silence with him as they both watched the sun settle onto the horizon in the Peloponnesian straits. Indeed, Epicurus believed that being together in silence was the highest form of personal communion. Clearly such communion did not come easily to us when we were still in that stage of life when we were hell bent on achieving goals.

For a long moment after the music's climax, they remained standing silently next to one another with upraised arms.

The idea of playfulness in old age also resonates with me. I was happily surprised to discover how many of the philosophers in my little portable library paid tribute to "play." In his popular essay, "In Praise of Idleness," the 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, lamented modern man's loss of his capacity for play, seeing it as having been erased by the "cult of efficiency." But perhaps the philosopher who best understood the transcendental possibilities of play was Epicurus' forbear, Plato, who wrote: "Man is made God's plaything and that is the best part of him. ... What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play."

I found myself recalling the first time I saw old Greek men dancing. It was on a night in 1968, during my first long sojourn on Hydra. Outside the window of my hillside house, a full moon had set the whitewashed houses aglow and the unearthly light drew me out of my room and down to the coastal walkway for a dreamy ramble. It was utterly quiet except for an occasional donkey bray and rooster crow.

Aging stylishly, online and in the streets

Then I heard music coming from the direction of the main port, at first only the stuttering beat of bass notes, then, as I walked toward the music, the Turkic twang of a bouzouki. I followed the sound to a taverna called Loulou's. By then I recognized the music; it was a classic song by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music at the time was prohibited by the ruling dictatorship because of his antifascist activities. The doors to Loulou's were locked shut, but one of the windows was open. I peered inside.

Five old men were dancing side by side, connected one to the other by handkerchiefs held in their raised hands. Their craggy faces were tilted upward with what struck me as pride, defiance, and, above all, exultation. All of them were straining to keep their backs erect, though none fully succeeded, yet their legs executed the dance's sideward steps in perfect, graceful synchrony. When, toward the end of the song, the music gradually accelerated, their steps accelerated along with it. For a long moment after the music's crescendo climax, they remained standing silently next to one another with upraised arms.

What I had witnessed, quite simply, was a dance to life and to its consummate fulfillment in old age. This was play at its most exalted.

I fully understood what Plato meant when he wrote that pure play has intimations of the divine. And now, in my old age, I feel I am finally ready to play and dance with well-earned abandon.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Klein.

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