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Monday, October 6, 2014

Living Past 75

Reading at 76 Dr. Emmanuel's "Why I hope to die at 75" stimulates some reflection.  I was reflecting on old age and life's end anyways. 
  • I recently returned from a class reunion in Detroit where we talked about those who are no longer with us and planned our next reunion deciding not to wait the traditional 5 years. 
  • A couple of days ago one of those classmates, Bill Dwyer, died at 76 in his sleep without warning of pains or sickness.
  • Bernie and I just moved into a continuum of care retirement community where I constantly point out to her: "Wow, look at all these old people!"
  • I'm in process of taking a course on Satire in the Enlightenment and just reread Swift's Gulliver's Travels including the visit to Luggnagg where the struldbrugs grow old but never die.
  • And last week in Pittsburg we were playing a "wish game" and my 10 year old grandson Remy said that his wish was that I don't grow any older. 
That latter event hit me especially hard because now I knew that he saw me slowing down, not as ready to throw him about and wrestle and play monster games. I saw myself through his eyes and it's bad enough looking in the mirror.


I feel good. I run 20 miles a week, take bike rides, and in my new old folks home intend to do pool laps regularly. (Everybody says that you die very fit here!)

I read lots, fiction and non fiction, belong to a book club, keep up with the news, go to lectures and plays, regularly visit the wonderful museums in DC, and take advantage of other learning experiences.

I volunteer in housing and community development, my lifelong vocation, in one of the DC neighborhoods through our church's affordable housing development organization and serve on a few community boards.

My wife was and my children are very successful in their careers. I have no idea how much money my children make. But it seems to be enough and they seem very happy with what they are doing and our grandchildren are the best. Now with us in this continuum of care retirement community, they won't have to worry about us. (I wish everybody who wanted it could have this opportunity and that we as a people would provide it, say, through Medicare.)

But Dr. Emmanuel, I'm 76 and over your hill. I don't particularly want to die. And I know that is not what you are saying. You are pointing out that I probably have shot my wad and it's time to let go. I agree. But I have different or perhaps added reasons than those you give.

Yes, I don't want my grandchildren to remember me as a bumbling, stumbling old man. But on the other hand I do hope they can see me as a person who knew how to grow old with some grace and gratitude. I watched my father die of Alzheimer's and my mother after a stroke and it was very, very painful. But that was just an episode. It is not at all how I encounter them today in my dreams and memories. In fact my image of them keeps aggrandizing as I get older.

I will not write that great book or found that big organization or save the world as I thought I would. No, I will not achieve Fame and Fortune--at least no more than I already have; and that's not much. But you know what?  I no longer care. I do want to keep trying to make contributions and think I can in much smaller ways than I once fantasized. I am close to coming to terms that I am a speck upon a speck upon a speck upon a speck upon a speck as one astrophysicist has summed it up. But I am still curious and fascinated by all those specks.

At 76 I intend to take no extraordinary means to prolong that speck. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I will not try to cut it out or stop it with chemotherapy or radiation--unless it be to lesson my pain and promote my tranquillity. If I have a massive stroke or heart attack, let me go where it will take me. And so on. And so on.

And though my life is but an instant of an instant of an instant of an instant of an instant, I enjoy in my instant the warmth of the sun and the breeze caressing my body, the touch of my lover, the sound of falling water, the company of good friends. I am in awe of my brothers and sisters who have nurtured their children, built their communities, composed concerts, choreographed dances, meticulously detailed or boldly splashed paint on canvas, constructed theories, exercised leadership, risked failure, and co-created my world. My instant passes into the next. I am grateful for my instant and will continue to be as long as I live. 


And then there is the matter of Swift's struldbrugs, the immortals of Luggnagg. They are not exactly the same that the AI or Singularity people envision as they work towards human immortality through better and better technology. Yet they do present a cautionary tale for the geeks for everlasting life to consider.

Would it not be a horrible place if humans stayed around forever? Would there not be a disincentive for innovation? Look today how hard it is to get past old ways of thinking and behaving. New birth opens to new possibilities. And keeping old people around forever would suppress new birth.

I doubt we would have had the Axial Revolution much less the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution if the old entrenched group had not let go by dying off. The abolition of slavery, the development of republics, the decline of superstition, the liberation of women, the weaving of a safety net of guaranteed income and health and housing, the openness to diverse religions and lifestyles would still be held back if the Tories had their way. 

Even now old white Christian men in the West along with Islamic fundamentalists in the East fight against change which they think is the cause of all the world's ills. When they themselves in their reliance on violence to protect the way things were and maintain their dominating narrow habits of thinking and behaving are the real problem. Yes, that includes me and all of us over-75ers. We must die and make room for innovation.

I would like to think that we still have a contribution to make if perchance we live past 75 and if we so choose. That contribution is to let go, make room, pass on the torch, and help the new generations to do the same.