Ruminating on Otium: Perspectives On The Contemplative Life And Retirement

No, that is not a typo in the headline.

“Otium” is a new word I picked up from an online discussion with Practical Philosopher Andrew Taggart. It’s a wonderful word that has very interesting implications for people in their retirement years.

There’s an excellent Wikipedia listing for Otium, that starts by paraphrasing its definition from two sources published in a 2003 issue of the scholarly academic journal Arethusa, which has a keen focus on “original and cultural studies of the ancient world”:

Otium, a Latin abstract term, has a variety of meanings, including leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavors. It sometimes, but not always, relates to a time in a person’s retirement after previous service to the public or private sector, opposing “active public life.” Otium can be a temporary time of leisure, that is sporadic. It can have intellectual, virtuous or immoral implications. It originally had the idea of withdrawing from one’s daily business (negotium) or affairs to engage in activities that were considered to be artistically valuable or enlightening (i.e. speaking, writing, philosophy). It had particular meaning to businessmen, diplomats, philosophers and poets.

Otium’s Roots
Otium’s roots harken back to ancient Rome during the time of Emperor Augustus from 63 BC to 14 AD. In a September 2008 New York Times article—“The pursuit of leisure and the rise of the Roman villa”—writer Roderick Conway Morris explains how wealthy Roman politicos and land owners were displaced by the new rule of Augustus. Thrusted into joblessness, these elites were responsible for “an explosion of private home building” that became the birth of villas located in the countryside, “far from the distractions and hubbub of town.” Here they could “spend leisure hours amid fresh air and tranquility cultivating the liberal arts.”

Consistent with Gerotranscendence
The central motif of transcending societal distractions that comes with Otium is consistent philosophically with another esoteric word— “gerotranscendence”—that also relates strongly to how some people spend their retirement years. In an Otium fashion, the modern day theoretical meaning of gerotranscendence deals with growing in self-awareness and practicing self-transcendency.

The theory of gerotranscendence was first detailed by Swedish Social Gerontologist Lars Tornstam in the early 1980s and culminated in his 2005  book “Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging,” where he describes the gerotranscendent person as someone who

typically experiences a redefinition of the self and of relationships to others and a new understanding of fundamental, existential questions. The individual becomes, for example, less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities. There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decrease in interest in superfluous social interaction. The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for solitary “meditation.” Positive solitude becomes more important. There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life, and death. However, gerotranscendence does not imply any state of withdrawal or disengagement, as is sometimes erroneously believed.

Tornstam based his gerotranscendence theory on research and interviews he conducted with senior citizens for more than 25 years. One of his main caveats emphasized how over the course of a lifetime we do not necessarily remain static about our values and interests. In another New York Times piece, Paula Spam quoted Tornstam confirming that “we develop and change; we mature. It’s a process that goes on all our lives, and it doesn’t ever end. The mistake we make in middle age is thinking that good aging means continuing to be the way we were at 50. Maybe it’s not.”

Solitude is Okay
Aligning to gerotranscendence runs against most modern positive aging theories that place high importance on social interaction and activity, as opposed to a decrease in social interaction and an increased penchant toward leading a more contemplative, less physically active and more solitary lifestyle as we age.

In a Spring 2015 “Engaging Aging” newsletter cover story, published by the National Religious Retirement Office, Editor and Social Psychologist Sister Sherryl White calls gerotranscendence “an exciting theory in the field of social gerontology” that can offer “new implications for models of care.”

White refers to Tornstam’s claim that elder care workers need to alter their perspectives about people who may show gerotranscendent traits that reveal a preference for less physical and social activity and a greater need for solitude.

What judgments are placed upon those who intentionally seek to tighten their social circle, not expand it? From an activity perspective, the elder might be flagged as withdrawn, isolated, and possibly even depressed. But from the perspective of gerotranscendence theory, those are healthy indicators of maturity.

This takes us back to our new word Otium, as professed by Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher who lived a few decades before the Augustinian rule. Reference to this can be found in a scholarly paper written by Givanni M. Ildefonso, titled “Recovering Leisure: Otium as the Basis of Education.” Ildefonso proposes that philosophical conversations about leisure and the ancient concept of Otium, as professed by Seneca, should be incorporated into education practice to “benefit students, teachers, and society, in general.”

“Seneca argued that toil, work, and trivial affairs consume a large portion of our waking hours and make us feel as though our lives are short,” Ildefonso explains.  On the other hand, if one practices Otium-related values, he/she “will find life meaningful and rich, and its duration, enough.”  Ildefonso notes that by engaging with Otium, such as through artistically valuable or enlightening or philosophical pursuits, our time winds up becoming much less “disseminated among people, duties, favors, work, and like activities.” In turn, we become more in control of our lives, or, put another way, less preoccupied with today’s overabundance of outside demands that are typically overly materialistic oriented and/or, from a human perspective, often superficial and lacking in meaning.

Now that seems to be the perfect definition of leisure—or should I say “Otium”— as it should be.

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