Painless philosophy

If you could get a good look at the last stage of life, would it help you recognize life’s very purpose? Just exactly what understanding would that kind of vision get you?

Those are the questions considered near the end of A Map to the End of Time (W.W. Norton Publishers, 1999) by the author, Ron Manheimer, and his 72-year-old Danish friend, Augie (who sometimes calls Manheimer “Mr. Jewish Philosopher”).

“I’d be better equipped to understand what lies ahead and to connect my time of life with [that of] my older friends,” Manheimer tells Augie. “It would be like having a map.”

“A map to the end of time,” says Augie.

Manheimer’s book is that map, or a piece of it. “A philosophy book about aging” is how Manheimer himself described it in a recent interview, adding, “[Those are] two subjects people don’t want to hear any more about. I wrote it in a sort of novelistic style, to bring up the interplay between ideas and life experiences.”

A character in the book — Manheimer’s friend and former teacher Oscar Sheppler — advises him to hold onto both “ideas and stories” throughout his life’s journey. And that’s the basic premise of A Map to the End of Time: philosophical ideas boiled down to their essence, and woven into vivid gleaned stories from people Manheimer has admired and learned from — mostly people over 50.

Published in April, this philosophical detective story is subtitled “Wayfarings with Friends and Philosophers.” Some of those wayfarers, along with some of the stories and ideas, come from Asheville: For the last 11 years, Manheimer has directed the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement at UNCA.

Manheimer sat down to talk about his new book, his time at the center and his philosophy on aging in his small, first-floor office, which looks out on the UNCA quad. The center, he explains, is “an educational program for people over 50. A theme that runs through the book is that, with later life being a relatively new part of the life course [and] a larger number of people [reaching that stage] than ever before — the question is, What’s the point of [later life]? So, in part, we’re a kind of laboratory to look at that question. Most undergraduates really have no education about this, even though it’s the biggest demographic change of the 20th century.”

In 1976, at a vulnerable time for Manheimer, he came upon words from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that would help set the course of his life: “I am a part of all that I have met.” If this was true, Manheimer wanted to know exactly how people transformed what he calls “past experience and a storehouse of memories” into new adventures. He suspected that “real-life seniors might be able to reveal these secrets of self-transformation and renewal.” Only weeks later, he volunteered to teach philosophy at a senior center in Olympia, Wash.

“I started thinking about what kind of an older person I would like to be,” he explains, “[and about] certain people I really admired, like Hildegarde [from the book], and I thought, now how did she get to be so interesting and energetic and dispassionate and engaged? … And I kept thinking, was she always like this, or did she get like this, or what? And I was sort of following her around for many years, and so I thought of myself as an understudy. … I’d make mental notes to myself about [what I liked] in this person. For years, I called myself an SlT — a senior in training.”

He spent the next 20 years, he tells us in the book, both delving into philosophy and “teaching, collaborating with, and learning from my elders.”

A distillation of the knowledge he gleaned, A Map to the End of Time is as rich and full of delicious, chewy ideas as a box of fine chocolates. In each chapter, he tells stories and has conversations about a particular quality of aging: empathetic humor, living with deliberateness, contemporaneity, the bent for autobiography, the integrity of the self. And, too, each chapter draws on the ideas of a different philosopher — from Schopenhauer’s belief that the payoff of old age is the disillusionment of seeing life as it really is, to American philosopher David Norton’s suggestion that the last stage of life is a time of rediscovering one’s common humanity, not “an ending, but a return to a beginning.”

Manheimer’s special gift is the ability to address Big Questions and Serious Subjects in simple narratives that not only bring the topics to life and entertain us, but make us think … in spite of ourselves.

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