I turned 67 this year. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. My body didn’t disintegrate. My mind still makes the roll call.
It has been the occasion of some trifling contemplation. When you hit 60, you are at the crest of your life. That means you can, for the first time, see both ways – backward well enough to see your mistakes and forward well enough to know that you’ll make most of them again.
In candid moments, you admit to yourself that the end may be sooner than you’d like. At 60, you’ve lived more years than you have left.
And the math isn’t the only thing against you. So is Mother Nature. Aching joints, weakening eyesight, and the dismal retardation of your fat-burning hormones.
An expert on aging once told me that the degradation of the body is biology’s way of encouraging us to pass on critical information to our offspring. In other words, there is no biological reason why we have to weaken before we die but there is an evolutionary one: We are made to fall apart so the younger generation can take over. Unless the oldsters get weaker, they won’t allow the youngsters to take over and won’t pass on to them the knowledge that’s needed to do so.
Well, I’m all in favor of letting my kids take their rightful places in the world. I just don’t see why I have to do that by becoming enfeebled.
When your knees start aching with every step you take down the stairs, the natural response is to (1) slow down and (2) bitch about it. But when I think of the older people I’ve admired, there was none of that from them. My dad. My grandmother. My former partner. My surrogate uncle/accountant.
As Anna Quindlen asserts in her minibook, A Short Guide to a HappyLife, the recognition of mortality can be “one of the best things that can happen to you.”
I think I know what she means. But I’m not sure I agree.
She means, I believe, that the awareness of the brevity of temporary human life should prompt one to pay attention to the things that really matter and, therefore, to live a richer, more meaningful life. But when I contemplate my mortality – I mean really think about it, really imagine my consciousness disappearing forever – I’m frightened. Frightened to the point of mental and emotional freezing. It’s not good.
Recognizing mortality abstractly is a different matter. It is helpful in figuring out my values and establishing my goals. (I recommend a trick for this: Imagine that you are eavesdropping on your own funeral. Your spouse, your family, your friends and colleagues are all there talking about you. What would they be saying? What would you want them to say?)
But that is not what contemplation means to me. Contemplation means getting deep. And that kind of thinking freezes me.
I believe, in fact, that a healthy mind is one whose primary function is to deny death. A friend, James Altucher, seems to see it the same way. He says that we should not live as if we were going to die tomorrow, but as if we would never die.
When my mind is healthy, I have no desire to live out the rest of my life retreating and complaining. I remind myself that the human body is made to last 120 years. Half of that is 60, and I’m just seven years more than 60. So I still have lots of time to do all sorts of interesting things. And that makes me feel good.
There is plenty of historical evidence that one can live a vibrant life after 60.
Consider, for example, Aristotle, who spent most of his youthful years wandering around in the shadow of his mentor, Plato. Contrary to what most believe, he didn’t figure out his own philosophy until he turned 50. He then became the most influential thinker of all time.
Henry Flagler didn’t start his railroad project until he was 70, and then went on to develop the entire state of Florida almost single-handedly. And John Glenn, who became famous in 1962 when he piloted America’s first manned orbital mission, became the oldest man in space when he flew on Space Shuttle Discovery Flight STS-95 at the age of 77.
Then there are these oldsters who accomplished more after 70 than most do in their whole lives:
* Nelson Mandela, having lived a life dedicated to the realization of democracy and the defeat of apartheid in his native South Africa, emerged from a long imprisonment at the age of 72 and within four years became president of his country and the recipient of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
* Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science Church, started the ChristianScience Monitornewspaper when she was 87, two years before her death.
* George Burns, who returned to motion pictures after a 30-year hiatus in 1975 at the age of 79, lived to be 100. And in his later years, he became the unofficial spokesperson for an inspired old age. He quipped, “I get a standing ovation just standing.”
* Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses) became internationally known when the world took notice of her American folk paintings. During the next 20 years, until her death at the age of 101, she created approximately 2,000 paintings.
At one time, a life span of 50 years was considered full. Today, more and more people are living past their 100th birthdays. So why not think of this benchmark, the 50th birthday, as the beginning of a second life? A second chance?
At 50, you are starting all over again – but with the advantage of 50 years’ worth of experience. You can do just about everything you ever did, but with more wisdom to guide you and more perspective to enjoy yourself.
If, like me, you’re past the 50-year mark, and if, like me, you are sometimes temporarily immobilized by the fear of death, consider this approach:
Tell yourself that you are not doing yourself or anyone else a favor by seriously contemplating your mortality. Recognize that your mind’s primary function is to deny death. Let it do its job. Do stay aware of those things that really matter to you. Then create goals and objectives that coincide with your values and carry them out as if you were going to live another 50 or 60 years.