Third Age: Examined Lives

What a fuss about the Pope retiring. At the age of 85, why wouldn’t he choose to put up his pretty red shoes and sit dozing in the sun with his cat and his dogma?

What an option it must be, after blessing all those medals and sorting out thorny issues, to retire to a monastery and have star-struck nuns bring him pizza and chocolate biscuits and a little non-sacramental wine. If not now, when, he might ask? It does rather depend on expectations of an afterlife, but I don’t remember being promised anything more blissful than that.

So no more uncomfortable pope mobile, being blamed for the appalling activities of his underlings, having to think about birth control at 85, and day after day forbidding, forbidding… This is so contrary to the inclinations of most people his age. For one thing, few of us in the third age have the power to forbid anything, and as we are confronted with life’s brevity, we want everyone to have a good time short of anything illegal.

Retirement is a beautiful thing. Isobel Redmond’s daughter messaged her mum that the Pope had pinched her idea. Do you suppose Elizabeth II has rung him and told him he’s a lucky dog? The tabloids have hinted for ages that she should hand over to Prince Charles, but she, unlike the Pope, has family to consider. He is free to enjoy the sport of watching the cardinalate-set do each other in scrambling for the throne. Perhaps scrambling is not the word. Praying awfully hard then.

Pope Benedict the Ex will now have time to live the life. And in third age, the life to live is the examined life, just like Socrates said.

Socrates actually said that the unexamined life was not worth living, probably one of the most pull-yourself-up-short statements we encounter, if we are lucky, as we muddle through our daily lives. As an aside here, I must offer the observation that the internet is a brash and often crass place. In a quite serious discussion of Socrates’ keenness on the examined life I found advice that this was the aphorism best suited to T-shirts and lapel buttons.

I am not sure that printing slogans on T-shirts is exactly Socratic method. But who knows what Socrates would be wearing on his toga if he lived in our times?

I first learnt of Socrates’ views when I was a Philos1 student aged 17 at the feet of the great and greatly feared Professor John Anderson. He walked up and down, mostly looking at his own feet, no doubt to avoid the sight of the silly young things in his lecture room. Anderson also went on quite a bit to us about whether Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was a shrew. I am not too sad that I have forgotten what his conclusion was. But what I was actually doing while looking up “Examined Life” was searching for a book by a psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz, which I had been told was full of great stories about understanding ourselves with the help of a clever, sympathetic analyst like him.

The Examined Life is published by Vintage Books, London. Book stores have it, but I read it on my iPad, the drawback of which is that I can’t lend it to anyone. This is Apple method; not really conducive to Socratic method of discussion… but cheap. The stories are case histories: sad, earthy, cautionary, shocking. A married man, father of grown up children, suddenly discovers at age 70 that he is gay; Grosz is spat at for a year by a nine-year-old-boy whose anger keeps him from sadness; a patient calls her husband “sweetie” when she no longer desires him and Grosz calls it “sugar-coated hate”.  The book begins:  “I want to tell you … about a patient who shocked me.” (Just about all his patients shocked me.) Grosz gets a letter from the fiancée of his young male suicidal patient notifying him of his death. Much anguish among those who treated him. Six months later he gets a phone message from the patient confessing that he had faked his death and the letter. What an attention-getter. It takes avoidance to a new level. Grosz encounters him at the cinema some years later with his wife.

How lucky are the psychoanalysts to get abundant riveting stories while being paid to listen. But I have a spasm of squirm. Grosz says he’s “changed names and altered all identifying details”. Hang on. Surely people would recognise their own stories here, even with changes. Who would risk blurting to Grosz if they thought it would be in his next book?

Maybe Grosz, like the Pope, is thinking of retirement and thought it worth the risk. But we can be sure that the book that is not coming is “The Examined Life: Tales from the Confessional,” by ex-Pope Benedict. It would knock Grosz’s book for six. But it ain’t gonna happen, folks.



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