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The New Old Age

BY Monica Martinez July 31, 2022

Marshall Beach sunset. Romain Guy, 2012. Via Wikimedia Commons, CC0.

It’s interesting how a book can show us a crystal-clear picture of who we were, are, and maybe even will be. The Portuguese edition I have of A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, edited by Diane K. Osbon, is dated 10/23/2003, when I was 37 years old. As I turned the pages of the book, I rediscovered a cute drawing of a bunny wrapped in little hearts made by my daughter, Laura, then five years old.

I hold the book in my hands and I see the passages underlined in chapter 1, Living in the World. They are the passages where Campbell explains his perspective of the five levels of love, from servile to fraternal, the biological desire for procreation, identification with the other and, finally, the romance of the highest order, wherein there is a surrender to love itself.

On my way into metanoia, evoked by living in the second half of life as Jung proposed, I was enchanted by the way Campbell talked about alchemical marriage. In marriage, he said, you are not sacrificing yourself for the sake of the other, but for the relationship. And I never forgot his amazement at couples who broke up after the children grew up. When their kids left the nest, they no longer had anything in common.

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Many of the clients who seek out a Jungian psychoanalyst are struggling with love relationship issues. It was interesting to see that much of what makes sense to me in this regard goes back to this and other texts by Campbell. He describes, on page 48, the big problem with marriages: can couples open themselves to compassion? There is very little room for compassion in the modern world, inside and outside the psychotherapist’s office, and Campbell’s question still resonates strongly nowadays.

However, nearly twenty years later when I reread his work for this brief essay,  my eyes were fixed on text not previously underlined, starting with the moment when the book itself was conceived, as the result of a one-month seminar for ten people in 1983 at Esalen. Campbell was 79 years old at the time, and I particularly appreciate the books, such as this one, that encapsulate worldviews and wisdom over the lifetime of great thinkers.

Now when there is, for so many of us, less time ahead than there is behind, what caught my attention were the passages in which Campbell talks about aging and death, and one’s attitude toward it. Or as he puts it, “You go to your death singing.” (80)

In italics, to help us deal with the idea, Diane points to a thought by Jung on the issue: “As a physician I am convinced that it is hygienic…to discover in death a goal toward which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.”

Discover in death a goal toward which one can strive… with this injunction in mind, I reread Campbell’s passage on page 84 carefully:

In old age, your only relationship to the world is your begging bowl, which in our culture is your bank account. That’s what you’ve already earned, and it has to support this relatively carefree last stage of life.

Since I am myself in that stage now, I can tell you that it is the best part of life. It’s properly called, in this wonderful language that we have, the “Golden Years.” It is a period when everything is coming up and flowering. It is very, very sweet.

Golden Years… Campbell is talking about the sweetness of the final stretch, heading to the exit, as he himself called it, in a very different perspective from that practiced in contemporary society. But as he said, he was not a sociologist and was not interested in these everyday things but, instead, in the eternal ones:

“The image of decline in old age is a bit deceptive”, he says, “because even though your energies are not those of early youth—that was the time of moving into the field of making all the big drives—now you are in the field, and this is the time of the opening flower, the real fulfillment, the bringing forth of what you have prepared yourself to bring forth. It is a wonderful moment. It is not a loss situation, as if you’re throwing off some-thing to go down. Not at all. It is a blooming. 

“It is a blooming.” “Golden years”. Now I understand what he means. It’s about the individuation process Jung described. The image that comes to my mind when I read about aging in Campbell is that of a beautiful sunset, an intense phenomena made all the more so because we know it will soon be gone. A sunset, by the way, which illustrates the cover of the book in the Portuguese version.

I close the book and internally thank Campbell once again. Well, well. His work continues to resonate with me, exercising its pedagogical function of guiding me along the way, just as I imagine it does in the lives of so many other people.

Discuss this MythBlast with the author and the rest of the JCF community in our forums, Conversations of a Higher Order.

Monica Martinez is the former Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythological RoundTable® Program South American Coordinator. She is a trained Jungian Psychoanalyst with a private practice in Brazil. On the academic field, she is full professor on the Communication and Culture Graduate Programme at the University of Sorocaba, Brazil, and visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication (Celsa) of the Sorbonne Université (France). She holds a PhD in Sciences of Communication (University of São Paulo) and completed her postdoctoral studies at the Methodist University of São Paulo. She has been interested in mythology since the first book of Greek mythology she ordered from a catalog when she was 9 years old.

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The Celebration of Life (Audio: Lecture I.1.1)

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Early shrines and cave art suggest that human beings were aware of a grand mystery far beyond themselves more than 100,000 years ago. Modern investigations into early mythologies have revealed basic motifs and recurring themes. Joseph Campbell shows how these ancient myths and symbols celebrate the mysteries of life and can sustain us today.

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Kamál (Perfection), the eight month of the Bahá’í year, begins August 1.

Lammas (also August 1), a Wiccan celebration of the grain harvest, derives etymologically from “loaf mass.” Traditionally, the grain picked on this auspicious day would be baked into bread before nightfall, the loaves blessed by the church during mass. This charming partnership between pagan and Christian goes only so far; Lammas, sometimes called Lughnasad, is also a funeral observance for the sun god Lugh, whose strength is perceptibly waning with days growing shorter in late summer.

The Transfiguration, August 6, celebrates the testimony of three witnesses, the Apostles Peter, James, and John, who saw Moses and Elijah appear on a mountaintop conversing with Christ, himself radiant with supernatural light.

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For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone—the creator and the destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.

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The Perennial Philosophy

“The Perennial Philosophy,” Aldous Huxley writes, “may be found among the traditional lore of peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

With great wit and stunning intellect—drawing on a diverse array of faiths, including Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam—Huxley examines the spiritual beliefs of various religious traditions and explains how they are united by a common human yearning to experience the divine. The Perennial Philosophy includes selections from Meister Eckhart, Rumi, and Lao Tzu, as well as the Bhagavad Gita, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Diamond Sutra, and Upanishads, among many others.

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“Travelers to the ancient Greek oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were greeted with these words, carved into the stone above the door: ‘Know Thyself,’ ‘Nothing in excess,’ ‘Surety brings ruin.’ Somewhere, in the space between these maxims, was the answer to their prayers. In her novel Delphi, Clare Pollard inhabits this space in form and content, and invites us to reflect on our need to know what the gods, the cosmos, or fate has in store for us. Fragments of Greek mythology and a survey of oracular devices are held up to our present-day fears and uncertainty. What fuels our longing to know the future, and how does this desire impact the present?”

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