Robert D. Sutherland



Contribution to the ‘Life-Game’ round-robin started by David’s classmates at Pomona College:

     I have just passed my 50th birthday; and this—along with observing in the last two years the slowing-down of our parents (now in their mid- and late 70’s)—has caused me, like Marilyn, to reflect on the process of aging. Having passed the half-century mark, I feel that I’ve been here a long time; on the other hand, I find myself surprised that 50 came so quickly. As regards aging, Marilyn uses a metaphor that seems apt: she sees the process of aging as a progressive retreat to a smaller and smaller sphere of activity and possibility—a gradual yielding of ground, a giving-up of territory. This may become manifest in a variety of ways, such as reduced energy levels, encroaching physical ailments and limitations, loss of independence and freedom of movement (whether through physical restrictions or having to care for others more dependent), failing eyesight, growing deafness, fading memory, a slowing-down of thought. Okay. So be it. But if quality of life is our concern, it behooves us all to give up ground as slowly and reluctantly as possible; if necessary, even fighting to hold it. I’m convinced that within certain limits (for some things are beyond our control) we can either hasten or retard the aging process.
     I used to think that how “old” one felt was basically a matter of self-perception; that despite what was happening to the body, one was still young if  one’s thinking and address to living were “young.” Though experience has revealed that assumption to require some qualification, I still essentially maintain that position. One should not think of oneself as “old”. To retard the aging process, to retain as much ground as possible, one should strive to remain flexible, should try new things, take risks, travel, undertake large-scale projects, make plans, look forward, not look back (except to recall and learn from experience), have meaningful work to do, cultivate an active sense of humor and capacity for play, and—at all costs—avoid becoming self-centered (a fatal lapse consistent with shrinking territory) through having a vital interest in other people and the world “out there”.  I think of Bertrand Russell in his 90’s being wheeled along in the Aldermaston Ban-the-Bomb marches, of Bette Davis (even after grave physical illness) and Lillian Gish making a new film together in very late life; of Eubie Blake performing music into his 90’s, George Burns planning to do a show at the Palladium when he turned 100; of Katherine Hepburn becoming an author in her 80’s, Grandma Moses starting her painting career after 70; of Albert Schweitzer maintaining his hospital in West Africa and playing Bach right to the end, Mother Jones leading labor protests long after her age-peers were senile or underground, Aaron Copland conducting master classes for young musicians when he was old enough to have done the same for their grandparents.
     And if giving up of territory is inevitable in the aging process, it would be to one’s advantage to start with as large a  territory as possible.
     I have recently been hearing my middle-aged peers saying “Youth is wasted on the young.” I don’t know whether they mean that young people don’t appreciate the energies and latitude of youth, or whether they are simply jealous of youthful vitality, or whether the statement reflects their own sour perception that they didn’t take full advantage of their younger years. It would be nice to have youthful energy and stamina in mid-life, for sure. But youth is wasted on the young only if young people waste it. At 50, I choose not to see my glass as half-empty; it’s far more expedient and productive to see it as half-full. There is more life to live. And if quality of life is what we’re after, and holding our ground, it probably would benefit us all to observe the old cliché that serves so many cases so very well: to focus on the doughnut and not on the hole.

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