As we grow older, how beneficial is it to reflect on our youthful actions and experiences? Two UChicago professors weigh the virtues of living fully in the present and reliving the past.
The present and future value of backward-looking emotions
Martha C. Nussbaum
As people age, they often spend more time thinking and talking about the past, usually their own past. That’s hardly surprising: after all, they see less life ahead of them, and more life behind. Planning and hoping, even fearing, seem less productive than before—or, productive only in an altruistic mode, as aging people hope and fear for their children, grandchildren, and other younger loved ones. And to the extent that aging people spend time looking backward, they also tend to spend time with backward-looking emotions such as regret, guilt, retrospective contentment, and, of course, retrospective anger.
What’s the point of these emotions? We can’t change the past, so is there any value in these trips down memory lane? We clearly have a good deal of choice about this way of using our time, so what should we think and choose?
The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics made elaborate lists of the emotions, dividing them into four categories: emotions focused on a present good (for example, joy), emotions focused on a future good (for example, hope), emotions focused on a present bad (for example, grief), and emotions focused on a future bad (for example, fear). They recognized no category of past-directed emotions. Guilt and remorse did not enter their taxonomies. Such omissions do not show that Greeks and Romans failed to experience such emotions, since the lists are works of philosophical theory, not close reports of everyday experience. But it does mean that the Stoic thinkers believed that their compatriots would not view the omission of the past as a major gap.
Even when we can access more personal and informal self-reports in ancient Greco-Roman society, we do not find people delving into their long-ago pasts in order to make sense of their present and future. Cicero talks to Atticus about everything he considers important and much that he does not. He does not talk to Atticus about his own (or Atticus’s) parents. Nor, much though he adores his daughter Tullia, does it occur to him to wonder whether her remarkably bad judgment in (apparently) falling in love with her philandering third husband Dolabella can be traced to any childhood pattern. Cicero is not a self-critical man, but he is introspective, and his failure to raise such questions can be understood to express a shared cultural view about what questions are worth asking and what emotions are worth investigating.
Aristotle does report that elderly people love talking about the past. But he does not suggest that they study it in search of self-understanding. Nor does he claim that they focus intense emotion on the events of their past. Indeed, the main emotion he reports is pleasure—the pleasure of diverting oneself from a possibly painful present to the memory of happier times.
Modern societies, by contrast, tend to see the past as a highly meaningful emotional category, and to see past-directed emotions as highly consequential for a person’s present and future. Three factors contributing to this shift are Judeo-Christian belief, psychoanalysis, and the novel. Judaism and Christianity teach careful self-examination of past deeds and thoughts, attaching immense importance for a person’s spiritual condition to backward-looking emotions of regret, remorse, and guilt. Christian beliefs about the afterlife make retrospective emotion a key to one’s eternal life-condition: by confessing and bemoaning guilty deeds, one may be saved.
Psychoanalysis clearly reinforced the cultural idea that the past is highly salient for the present and future state of the self—while turning the focus away from sin and judgment and toward self-understanding. It is virtually a given that the patient has intense emotions directed backward toward early childhood, and a lot of the work of analysis is to make these emotions conscious and to understand how they affect present patterns. Psychoanalytic beliefs have had enormous influence in making modern societies interested in the backward-looking emotions. Whether or not people accept the details of any specific psychoanalytic theory, the idea that memory, and emotions focused on the past, are keys to present and future happiness has ubiquitously shaped people’s ways of thinking and talking about themselves—and not just in Europe and North America.
An even wider and longer influence is the novel. The heroes and heroines of novels live and move in time, and their emotions span the full range of temporal categories. Reading novels has taught us that we ought to ask about the past in order to understand the present and future of any character—and that people ought to ask about their own pasts in order to understand their own present and future. In the process, emotions of many kinds toward that past become extremely important.
In short: when Aristotle’s elderly people talked on and on about the past, they were understood, and probably understood themselves, as having a good time, not as accomplishing anything profoundly worthwhile. We, by contrast, tend to think that there is a project, or projects, to be undertaken, projects involving self-knowledge and intelligent self-narration, and that the backward-looking emotions are an important part of executing such projects.
But what, precisely, are these projects? What are better and worse ways of executing them? Are any of them really worthwhile, given that we can’t change the past? Should we perhaps try to be more like the Greeks and Romans, remembering for pleasure and diversion from pain, but not looking to our past for profound meaning?
There are Greeks and Romans still living in our world. One of them was my grandmother. She lived to be 104, almost all of that time in good health, and I never heard her say one word about her past. She had had two husbands. One committed suicide in the Depression, and the other died of cancer when I was around 18. But she never looked back except in the occasional humorous anecdote about other people, for example about funny things I did as a young child. I learned about her past from my mother, not her.
Gertrude, nicknamed Piglet, had no interest in her past and no use for it. And since she had no pain until the last weeks of her life, she had no need even of Aristotelian memory in order to distract her from bitter reality. She was the most wholly present-oriented person I have ever seen. I often thought that this orientation helped explain her health and longevity.
But here is the thing about Piglet. Although her good spirits were admirable and her company delightful to those who did not spend a lot of time with her, there was a manipulativeness and a coldness in her that was painful to those (my mother and sister) who had to be at her beck and call. And this coldness went way back. She sent my mother to boarding school at the age of eight so that she could have fun traveling with her rich first husband. (Though a common practice in the British upper classes, this was highly unusual in the United States, and my mother felt abandoned.) When that husband seemed at risk of losing his money, she did not stand by him, but took my mother on a cruise to Europe. Photos show her laughing with men in SS uniform. On their return they found that, having exhausted all his financial options, he had killed himself by jumping from a hotel window, in order to give them the insurance money, he wrote in a suicide letter.
Although such attitudes of self-sacrifice were bred in many American men of his class, he also knew the wife he had. Gertrude would not have embraced poverty in exchange for his life. By her commitment to freedom from care, she virtually willed his demise.
This, then, was not exactly a life that ought to have fled from self-examination. There was a lot to know, a lot to rue. But why? What would self-examination have achieved? If I feel that she was a shallow person for not having undertaken a backward-looking project, am I just the dupe of deeply habitual ideas of confession, guilt, and the last judgment? Since she had done these bad things already, what sense, if any, is there in thinking that backward-looking emotion could have made her life better? Why should she have added self-inflicted pain to the pain she had already caused?
I’ll use this case as a test for my idea that it is in some ways useful and valuable to examine one’s past and to feel toward it a range of emotions. First, however, we need some definitions. What are these backward-looking emotions, and what thoughts do they typically include?
Let’s begin with the happy ones. The main happy emotion looking backward is a type of contented satisfaction with what happened or what one has done. If intensely positive, it might even be described as retrospective joy. A close relative of these happy emotions is retrospective pride: one views oneself with pleasure or satisfaction, because one has been or done something good. And finally there is backward-looking love—which may be tinged with retrospective joy, or with grief, or with both of these.
The painful species seem more numerous and more complicated. Grief might be fixed on an immediate loss, but it may also look backward toward a loss a long time before. The Greek philosophers left out a part of grief when they thought of it as present-directed. Regret is a painful awareness that something bad happened, combined with the thought that it would have been better had that bad thing not happened. Closely related to regret is remorse or guilt. Remorse focuses on a deed that one has done and involves the thought the deed was wrongful, and that one should not have done it.
And then there is anger. Anger is an unusually complex emotion since it looks both backward and forward: backward toward a wrongful damage (sometimes close at hand, sometimes long past), forward toward some type of retribution. Sometimes the retribution is imagined as still in the future (whether through one’s own agency or through law or divine justice). But sometimes the imagined retribution may itself be located in the past: “X got what was coming to him, and a good thing too.” In both cases, anger combines pain at the damage with pleasure at the imagined retribution.
There are obvious ways in which backward-looking emotions can go wrong. They can get the facts wrong, believing that events happened when they didn’t, for example. They can get the values wrong, thinking of events or people as more or less important than they were. And the painful ones often seem to involve an impossible wish to change the past or to waste emotional energy on what has been done, in the case of regret and remorse, or what is lost and gone, in the case of grief.
Retrospective emotions tell me who I am, what I have done, what I have been committed to, and they pose a question: do I stand by that, or not? That could be useful for self-change. But even when self-change is not at issue, the retrospective emotion can play a valuable role in expressing and declaring who one is—if one avoids the danger of futile self-punishment. But we still need a deeper investigation of the errors and damages of living backward.
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of the most lauded dramas in the history of the American theater. It is also one of the most excruciating to watch. As you spend four hours with the father, the mother, and the two sons, you feel increasingly stifled and trapped as they rehearse routines from the past and refuse to face up to the challenges of their present. The watcher of a Sophoclean tragedy wants to tell the characters what she knows, so that they will not behave in a way that, in the light of the truth, is horrible and doomed.
The tragedy in O’Neill is different. It could not be avoided by adding knowledge. The destructive pattern has become endemic to how these people live and who they are, in such a way that only a long struggle toward change could alter it. The journey mentioned in the title is a literal journey throughout the long day toward an ever-greater depth of misery and estrangement. But the title also alludes to the way in which the life-journey of the characters, instead of moving toward the light of the future, turns back to the fixity and darkness of the past. The play feels stifling because it is a world from which the breath of future possibility has long ago been drained. Emotionally, the journey into night is a gradual progression away from present or future-related emotions, such as hope, love, and even fear, toward a repetitive recitation of routines rooted in and focused on the past.
The play’s characters, the Tyrones, talk constantly about the past, and most of the emotions they express are past-directed. In essence, all the characters choose the easy recycling of a repetitive role learned by memory and animated by retrospective emotions, over the challenge of a real present and future. The characters prefer to believe they are doomed, because that belief absolves them of responsibility for choice in the present. Being dead is easier than living.
Whatever retrospective emotions an aging life admits and even seeks, surely this way of avoiding present accountability is both futile, accomplishing nothing good, and ethically heinous. Life is not the afterlife, and the present is not the past. It is all too easy to live retrospectively, whether the people one blames are others or oneself, and whether the others are alive or dead. Accountability (of self and others) for past deeds is an important part of facing up to one’s life, but accountability is distinct from a manufactured doom and from obsessive payback routines. Indeed, in its best form it brings the painful awareness that change is not impossible but all too possible.
So was my grandmother on the right track after all? Seeing some of the traps involved in retrospective emotion, one might easily conclude that her way of living is better, a kind of perpetual childhood in which the past simply ceases to exist. So what is missing in that pleasant life? Obviously her life involves a refusal to confront error and wrongdoing. And since there were misdeeds, indeed bad character traits as well, failing to face them means, too, a failure to be truthful about who one is: a veneer of niceness is put forward, while lurking in the background is something very different.
There is a kind of bad faith in such a life, drawing people in by charm and giving an impersonation of life and love, but not really loving at all, and perhaps not even living at all, in the sense that change is ruled out. Her failure to experience grief or guilt is of a piece with an inability to love. When a husband dies, just cheerfully move on. And these emotional deficiencies yield a life in which one ceases to choose and move, just as much as Mary Tyrone: the perpetual present is as inflexible a trap as the perpetual past.
If, then, there is error in turning the present and future into a past, there is an equal and opposite error in discarding the past in favor of a (therefore impoverished) present and future. It is possible for an entire community to live like my grandmother. In Leisureville: Adventures in a World without Children (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), Andrew D. Blechman describes retirement communities in Florida and Arizona that focus on constructing a type of presentist hedonism that distracts aging people from introspection and painful emotion. The one, ubiquitous radio station keeps on repeating, “It’s a beautiful day in The Villages!” Social problems are kept at bay. People don’t search for meaning, they search for short-term pleasure in golf, food, and sex. Unlike Aristotle’s aging people, they turn to the present rather than the past to distract themselves from the prospect of pain.
But what’s really wrong with the residents of Leisureville? Can I say more to defend my reaction, or is it an inexplicable judgment of personal taste? The residents seem superficial, but they are cheerful. And unlike many aging people, they are at least not isolated. So what’s so bad about that? I believe, however, that these people have defects that are significant apart from the general distastefulness (to me) of their lifestyle. Part of the problem with these people is a complete absence of altruism, in people who have large resources. The avoidance of children is just a symptom of this lack of concern for a world outside the self, where resources might do good.
But there also seems to be something amiss with the presentism itself. Avoiding family and the past, these people avoid a lot of pain. Once again, however, I feel that there is a project of being a whole person that they are not executing, a project that requires facing difficulty, loss, and error. The presentist life is like the life we imagine many nonhuman animals leading, and that is fine for them; but human lives, and indeed the lives of some nonhuman animals, have richer possibilities: grief that acknowledges love, remorse that acknowledges ethical failure and the possibility of self-change.
There’s a stronger thesis that we should at least consider: that finding or constructing a narrative out of the scattered materials of one’s life is a way of making one’s life more meaningful, more worth living. Retrospection, carried out in a certain way, is not just finding or affirming meaning, it is a way of constructing it. This thesis, associated with Nietzsche and some Romantics, involves an initially compelling picture of what it is for something to make sense. The general idea is that our lives can look like chance accretions of accidents, and there is something undignified about that, something not fully worthy of our humanity. Religious doctrines solve that problem by providing an external narrative of meaning against which life’s shape, and its progress or regress, can be assessed. But if our sense or meaning is not given us by a religious narrative, then it is up to us to endow our lives with meaning. Making a narrative whole out of life’s chance materials is a good way of doing that.
What retrospection does, on this account, is not just to face up to the past, it is to select and shape, to create a work of art where previously there was just chance. If we follow this path, we can see a double benefit in past-directed emotions: they are part of confronting who one is, but also, in the process, they play a role in narrating one’s life story, as we strive, encountering our past, to shape it into a literary work of art.
There is much to admire in this ambition, but it also has its problematic aspects. First, for the minute one undertakes retrospective narration, one is to that extent no longer living forward. Writing one’s autobiography is thus highly likely to take one away from interactions in the present. Psychoanalysis does not appear to have this problem, since a good analyst keeps the analysand’s mind on the present task of living, which retrospective understanding is supposed to aid. Nor does psychoanalysis generate the expectation that everything will fit together into a tidy and aesthetically pleasing whole, an expectation that clearly militates against ongoing living, which could all too easily disrupt the emerging pattern.
A further problem is that the narratorial idea of life’s meaning seems hostile to life and its actual messiness. You take out what is “superfluous,” “repetitious,” “trivial,” and so forth. But that’s life too. You make sure that there is a clear, and possibly single or at least not too complicated, narrative arc. But lives are not like literary plots, they are typically much more multifaceted and multidirectional than that. Nor are real people like literary characters. They do not fit tidily into a plot, and relating to them well requires attending to what is messy, idiosyncratic, even boring from a literary viewpoint. The same problem obtains in one’s relationship to oneself. One fails to listen to oneself in an intelligent way, if one is determined to slot one’s own life into a familiar plot form. And often gender-based expectations will further skew that attention, demanding a heroic narrative for males, a narrative of love and connection for women.
We should not utterly reject the idea of self-narration, but we should warn ourselves of the dangers involved in embarking on that project without rethinking dominant social expectations that deform and simplify, without asking ourselves what rich reservoirs of meaning lie in daily conversations, in nonteleological interactions of many types.
Lives need to be lived backward, in some ways and with certain goals—self-understanding, self-change, the enrichment of ongoing life. These retrospective projects must avoid the twin dangers of pastism (Mary Tyrone) and presentism (my grandmother). And we now see that they must avoid, as well, the misanthropy of aestheticism, the hatred of life and self that consists in rejecting the untidy and the unshapely.
No regrets, and a cheer for retirement communities
Aging thoughtfully must involve some learning from the past. If what we learn can be generalized and conveyed to others, then we ought to have some good answers when younger people turn to us for wisdom or ask: “If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently? What do you regret?” It is not much of an answer to say one would have avoided a bad marriage, studied Mandarin, or bought Google stock, because these are things most of us know only with hindsight. They might represent misfortune, but not sincere regrets or sources of wisdom for young listeners.
A better answer might be that one should have studied languages; we could and should have known that life would be richer, and our understanding of other people more complete, if we invested in language skills. When young people ask for advice, I think they are asking about just such regrets, in order to avoid serious errors by learning from ours. Such advice is more valuable when it is not self-justifying. “I found a good job, and stayed loyal to my employer for 40 years, and this brought me great happiness” is unconvincing, both because the listener might think that times have changed and because it might seem that the speaker is justifying an unadventurous life story. In contrast, “I was disloyal three times, and each time my actions caused great pain to everyone, including me,” has the ring of sagacity. The statement might be about work or about love, and it conveys information that seems hard or costly to acquire on one’s own. Good advice can even come from unhappy or even dysfunctional people. They are marked by a tendency to dwell on past errors or bad luck, and their regrets are impediments to new adventures, experimentation, and satisfaction. But if one can generalize about errors, others might learn from them. Ideally we would learn from the regrets of others, and end up having none of our own.
Some advice of this kind is rather simple. “After age 60, do not talk about your health problems unless you intend to bore people”; “Spend time with your parents and children because these opportunities are precious”; and “Travel and engage with diverse people” are good pieces of advice that come from years of experience and, in all likelihood, occasional regrets. But when it comes to larger questions about life, essays and novels do more than any one person’s musings can possibly convey. Martha points to one such lesson: learn from the past but do not let it either suffocate you (pastism) or turn you into a shallow, self-absorbed person (presentist). I think Martha is much too tough on presentists, so I will say something in favor of happy people who know how to seize moments. There is room to admire people who completely change their lives as they age. But there is also the larger psychological question: Can an attitude or way of living life be learned?
Looking backward is a special problem for pessimists and people who carry negative thoughts wherever they go. Novelists, therapists, and kindergarten teachers recognize that we would lead happier lives if we spread good cheer rather than gloom, if only because other people would respond better to us. But telling people to “cheer up” is rarely successful. Besides, there are charming curmudgeons. How-to books about mourning try to find a middle road: recognize your grief, let it run its course, and then move on. It is not obvious that these instructions work for people who are prone to guilt or stress, not to mention depression. Many best-selling books succeed because people like reading about themselves—reinforcement is doled out with a little inspiration in the mix—not because they offer proven remedies. In principle, regret is valuable if one learns from it, or is forgiven because remorse has been demonstrated, but it probably works best for forward-looking, optimistic people—and they probably do not need advice in the first place. I fear that although Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is a brilliant analysis of dysfunction, it is unlikely to do much for those hoping to learn from it.
Consider the difference between well-placed blame and misfortune. Gary drives too fast and under the influence of alcohol, and he tragically ends Amir’s life. In a novel there would be some quirk that put Amir in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in real life people like Gary need to be deterred or educated in the first place. If you drive recklessly you have a much higher chance of killing someone; Gary may recover if his regret teaches him something, but the wake-up call comes at the expense of Amir’s life. In contrast, Allie drives safely but because of some bad luck, such as invisible ice on the road, her automobile slides into Gregory and kills him. She may have trouble getting over this tragedy, and she may hold herself responsible, especially if Gregory is a child. She and Gary may both be regretful and unlucky, but only one is blameworthy. Again, I’m not sure that rational discussion will help Allie see that she should look forward and not be consumed by the regret.
Famously, many people feel lifelong guilt for surviving a war or a traumatic event like the Holocaust, when many loved ones and neighbors perished. Some benefit from therapy and years of being reminded that they were victims and not at fault, but most of those who go forward cheerfully seem to be made of different stuff. So yes, (1) it is great when people can learn from the past without becoming lost in what might have been or in assigning blame, but it is also (2) good to deter blameworthy behavior. And, finally, (3) telling people to be optimally forward-looking may be as ineffective as telling sad sacks to cheer up.
And then there are the presentists, as Martha calls them, including the inhabitants of The Villages in Florida, not to mention cruise ships, where many retired people enjoy self-absorbed lives. I may not yearn for these places, and I know Martha does not. But then she would like to keep working into her 70s and then 80s, while most people want to retire; she would like to be surrounded by graduate students and new ideas, while many people want to exclude young people and especially schoolchildren from their oases. Another colleague ridicules The Villages for its faux Western storefronts, mini-Disney affects, and (like other real estate developments targeting retirees) advertisement of golf and other “white” activities. But what is so awful about people wanting to enjoy the last third of life?
About 5 percent of American elderly now live in senior living communities. Florida’s The Villages is the country’s fastest growing and largest retirement destination. Marketed as a community for active seniors, most subcommunities in The Villages require at least one 55-year-old in each residence; anyone under 19 (of school age) must limit visits to 30 days per year. The housing stock and considerable leisure activities appeal to and reflect middle-American tastes. Residents organize and participate in hundreds of clubs and hobbies. They use numerous recreation centers, swimming pools, and golf courses, some of which are available to all residents with no additional charge. The infrastructure, landscaping, radio, newsletters, and advertising might best be described as upbeat or chirpy. There are plenty of classes and educational opportunities, though most focus on self-help and spirituality, with occasional historical reenactors and other popular, rather than highbrow, programs. The same is true for music and other entertainment; there are heavy doses of dated pop music, and classical pieces are often abridged.
The development and popularity of places like The Villages is good, not bad, news. The wealthiest 1 percent, or even 10 percent, of retirees might prefer to live in Manhattan or Palm Springs, and to enjoy cultural amenities with people of all ages, but this is not within the reach of most Americans. Think of retirement from the perspective of the median retiree born between 1930 and 1960. These are people who grew up without air conditioning, without fancy schools and colleges, with Scout and church summer camps rather than music, drama, and computer camps. They observed an increasingly affluent society around them and, in some part, did not share in the affluence while they worked and raised families.
The median income of The Villages suggests that residents have Social Security and then just a modest amount of other retirement income. They probably sold their homes in other parts of the United States and invested the proceeds in $200,000 to $500,000 homes in this central Florida development. Republicans outnumber Democrats here two to one. This is not Palm Beach or San Diego, where the average cost of housing is much higher. And it is much grayer than Clearwater, Florida, or Scottsdale, Arizona, which have the highest percentage of retirees among cities of one hundred thousand or more; in these two cities 20 percent of the population is over 65, while in The Villages it is 57.5 percent. It is worth noting that most of the places that attract retirees, including Scottsdale, Palm Springs, and Chappaqua, New York (of Bill and Hillary Clinton fame), have neighborhoods that are almost as white as The Villages, but have much higher median incomes and housing prices.
The Villages, and many places like it, may be growing rapidly, but most middle-income retirees prefer to stay in the homes and communities in which they worked and brought up families. Of course, some are not self-sufficient and must relocate to facilities in which care is provided. I like to think that the phenomenal growth of The Villages reflects the arrival of middle-income Americans who can finally enjoy some of the affluence of the nation they helped build. During most of their lives they observed people with higher incomes traveling abroad, buying second homes, sending children to private colleges, and subscribing to the New Yorker. In retirement, some might develop new preferences, but most just want to be left alone to enjoy the activities and television they already like. After 40 years of work they have earned stress-free lives.
Leisureville, as it is cleverly and fairly called, is their counterpart to the “safe spaces” that presentist college students demand. University professors typically object to both trends, and wish for young and old alike to be challenged with new ideas, drawn from the classics or from contemporary science. But the market is telling us that most senior citizens want challenges of a different kind and do not want intellectual humiliation—as they often see it—or new stresses; they want physical and mental comfort food. The retirement community is a place where they can enjoy each other’s company, experience more sex, and not feel stigmatized by their age. They had little control in their prior lives, as they were buffeted and occasionally rescued by economic cycles, erratic employers, government policies, health issues, and family problems or successes. Their retirement dream is to migrate to an environment they can control and in which they are valued.
It may be that they also want, or find themselves leading, segregated lives in this retirement period. The extra comfort apparently derived by many people from interacting with others of similar background or beliefs is somewhat generational. My parents’ friends were all of their own religious sect and color. Mine are much more diverse in religious terms, and substantially more so when it comes to race and ethnicity. My children’s friends are yet more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexuality, though perhaps less so with respect to politics. In large part the adult friendship patterns follow or reflect the demographic characteristics of the universities we attended. At present, Chinese American retirees, for example, can find retirement homes that cater to their language and food preferences. Lutheran retirees can find faith-based communities that appeal to them. Alpha Kappa Alpha is developing Ivy Acres, a retirement community in North Carolina aimed at African Americans over 55. Even the Loyal Order of Moose has Moosehaven, Florida, a “City of Contentment” exclusively for its retired members. Real estate developers often work with churches to develop communities aimed at particular audiences. They advertise cuisines, entertainment, and other amenities aimed at particular audiences—just as The Villages advertises golf. All these communities say that they welcome diverse residents, but the target audiences are unambiguous.
If this segregation seems like a step back in time, we ought not blame it on real estate developers. Most people have preferences reflected in whom they marry and, later on, with whom they retire. My guess is that the next generations’ retirement communities will be more diverse, in part because their schools, universities, and workplaces are far more diverse as a result of legal, social, and economic changes.
It is true, as Martha characterizes it, that these retirees in Leisureville are presentist. But when they do look backward, the evidence is that most are content rather than regretful. If their children turned out well, they are especially satisfied and even boastful. If not, they focus on grandchildren or simply try to improve their golf games. They want safe spaces, and most citizens would think they have earned it. Their lives are not free of bad news. They have Fox and NPR for one thing, but they also have fellow residents’ funerals to attend, and these remind the aging mourners that time is short. If they thought they had many years ahead, they might well learn languages, but inasmuch as they are realistic, they choose to enjoy one another’s company, play golf, sing, knit, and do a hundred other things that time now allows. Surely we all sometimes envy their communities and wish that we too could live among so many people with preferences like our own.
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, and Saul Levmore is the William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law.
Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore. Copyright © 2017 by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.