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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 8 months ago

Aviva resident asks the big questions at philosophy group

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At 108, Joe Newman concedes there is still a lot to learn at the discussion group he leads.
by: Harry Sayer Staff Writer

Joe Newman wouldn’t say he’s growing older — at this point, he’s already arrived there. 

Newman, a resident at the Aviva senior life campus, recently celebrated his 108th birthday, not that that fact impresses him in and of itself.

He said at a certain point that the years blend and the number of birthdays don’t matter as much — what’s important to Newman now is how he spends each day he’s been given.

“If you don’t think about how old you are, it's better you just wake up each day, do what you like to do, and keep going,” Newman said. “If you ever get another one, then you get up and do the same thing.”

It’s a philosophy he enjoys, and one he enjoys sharing each week.

Newman is the leader of the Socrates Café, a weekly philosophical conversation club that delves into the workings of society, culture, history and purpose.

Newman and his colleague Richard Weinberg lead the half-virtual, half in-person meetings with a single topic. The around-20 members of the group don’t shy away from tough conversations and routinely debate the merits of the U.S. immigration policy, social order, and recently the riots and insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. 

The group celebrated Newman’s 108th birthday at their weekly meeting, which had a handful of in-person attendees and several others on Zoom singing him a happy birthday. 

The exchange of ideas with his colleagues, and the possibility of seeing the world in a new light, is what excites Newman about each week. He often tells his colleagues not to be afraid of growing old but to instead embrace it, enjoy the moment, and keep going. 

 He’s heard the old joke about senior living homes being God’s waiting room, and he rejects it entirely. The idea that at a certain point it’s not worth it to be engaged, to stop living, isn’t something he accepts — he says he still wants to be part of this world. 

“I have a belief: I know what I know, and I know what I think,” Newman said. “But I haven't gotten anywhere unless I know what you know, and know what you think … to me, that makes it worth getting up tomorrow.”

Newman says he had a normal childhood growing up in South Bend, Indiana — decent in school, didn’t give his parents too much trouble — but the circumstances that led him to living in America were anything but. His parents were both activists in Russia, and he says they likely met in a gulag in Siberia for passing out leaflets advocating the overthrow of the tsar.

That political activism stayed with them as they immigrated to America. Newman recalls many dinner table discussions about the state of the world, and if society was going to the dogs.

His parents couldn't speak much English, and Newman said he was lucky enough to have his older sister bring him books to read. He devoured  “Black Beauty”, “Huckleberry Finn”, and countless others — his appetite for reading has stayed with him all his life. 

 “You can immerse yourself in what you're reading,” Newman said. “(My partner) complains I’ve got my face in a book or a newspaper even now.”

As important as physical exercise is for health, Newman feels it’s just an important if not moreso to keep his mind active. His philosophical debates with fellow group members have been a great way to do just that. 

One of his most memorable exchanges was a debate about the Black Lives Matter movement where they discussed a political party being the “party of Law and Order”. Newman approached the subject from its roots, wanting to see how members viewed the idea of what constituted “law and order”, which concept was in service to the other, and what demographics and social groups benefited from the idea of “order.”.

He says it’s not so much that the debates with his colleagues change his mind on topics, but it allows him to slow his thinking down and modify how he views certain things. 

That patience for others’ perspectives is something he thinks modern society lacks and has led  dissension. He’s disheartened that the world is still asking the same questions about societal decay and collapse that he discussed with his parents nearly a century ago. Even after all this time, he doesn’t feel he has the answers. 

For all of the introspection and high-minded explorations of human beings and the societies we form, Newman has kept to a guiding principle his sister told him long ago — life’s a bitch, so don’t be one. He thinks if every person was just kind to the people around them, society would reach a better place. 

“Any time you meet anyone, hope that when you leave them they'll feel glad they met you,” Newman said. “Try to make them feel that even for a few seconds, life’s a little brighter, a little happier. I think if each of us took a piece of that responsibility, some of this dissension will dissipate.”

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Harry Sayer is the Black Tie Reporter for the Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and previously worked the Black Tie beat for the Observer newspaper in Winter Park and Maitland. You can catch him at one of Sarasota's fundraisers and shindigs. 

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