In the afternoon of your life, cum dignitate otium

I’m in my 40s, and starting the slide down the hill, and at times I seem, to myself, to be handling it well. At other times, I am not handling it well. In the first few years of my professorship, I scrambled, as everybody does, for the tenure bar. I’ve been keeping this blog since before that time, so my younger self is on display here if you care to look at it.

After tenure, I tried various gambits to take on leadership roles in my department, all of which were thoroughly rejected among my colleagues. They just didn’t and don’t see me as somebody they care to have lead. I have grieved this reality, and accepted it, and instead I turned in the afternoon of my career to idea of what to do with all that extra energy and problem-solving verve I thought I would bring to whatever challenges the institution put before me.

I decided to retool and try to invent a new field, or a new way of thinking about urbanism–hence urban ethics–and read and write books. I do not know how well I am doing this, and I won’t until I either finish the book or die from trying to write it, both of which are possibilities. But I do enjoy working on it, and the work matters to me, redefining and changing.

I have been reading in my free time Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible , the memoir of his time trying to learn to play Chopin’s breathtakingly difficult Ballade #1 in G-Minor. It’s an inspiring book; Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian, and there are times when his casual name-dropping gets on my nerves, but he’s an elite, so, of course, he has elite friends, and well, even elites need friends, and elites are likely to be friends with other elites because that’s what makes them elites.

There is so much to love about this book, but one of the most important quotes that appears comes from Carl Jung, early on:

The afternoon of a human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage of life’s morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose of nature. But…whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning must pay for doing so with damage to his soul. Moneymaking, social existence, family and posterity are nothing but plain nature. Culture lies beyond the purpose of nature. could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?

The book itself is lovely, with Rusbridger’s frank account of going forward, going backward, getting swept up in the many, many major news stories coming out of the Guardian at the same time (Wikileaks being one), having meetings from breakfast until 2:30 am, and squeezing in 15 minutes here and there. If Rusbridger has time to do something that feeds his soul, well, the rest of us probably do, too.

When my colleagues rejected my overtures to leadership, I rather stepped back and decided to see what would develop with what Cicero referred to as otium cum dignitate. Otium in Latin means leisure, but it’s a particular kind of leisure–a stepping away from the worries and hurly burly of offices. Cum dignitate is what it sounds like–with dignity. Of course, Cicero is imagining the country estates of his fellow moneyed friends when he thought of productive leisure, but for me, it’s been a matter of simply letting go of ambitions that, for whatever reasons, were never going to happen for me. I no longer want what I don’t have, and the silence created by the end of yearning has presented me with its own magic, and its own challenges.

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