Human beings are purposeful animals. We decide to do something, set a goal, put something in motion. The funny thing about life, though, is that what we do doesn’t always work out as intended . . . we get blindsided by something we didn’t see coming. Did we skip over the chapter with the foreshadowing? Or forget that we rationalized it away like all boogie monsters?
Lately, I’ve been struck by these unintended consequences, primarily by our desires and actions to live a long life, the longer the better. We take decided action not to step in front of moving vehicles or eat cheesecake in order disprove the actuarial tables. But achieving longevity doesn’t always turn out that well for us.
Exemplifying this point, “Theories of the Sun” is a play I saw in Chicago last year about a woman who was seeking a cure for a disease that kept her from aging and ultimately dying. In this twist on the Benjamin Button scenario, Elizabeth Sweeney quit aging in her early 20s and now her daughter is a middle-aged woman who, based on appearances, could be her own mother. The play centers on her desire to be cured to avoid outliving her daughter. It’s against the nature of things, she reasons, that a mother would have to bury her own aged daughter.
In an obituary last week, I read that Ruby Lee Duff Cook had blown past the life expectancy figures, staying firmly in this world until the age of 103. I noticed with admiration that in her younger days she was “addicted to energetic activities. If these activities involved sweating, so much the better.” She and her husband were enthusiastic square dancers, while she also kept a pony and loved horseback riding. Ruby took up golf in her 60s, danced ballroom at the Austin Rec Center until her early 90s, and was particularly happy to work in the yard raking leaves, picking up limbs, and collecting pecans. All of this sounded like a woman happy in her activity and longevity, and then I read the disquieting parts: “Ruby remained active in her Sunday School class until all the other members of her class died.” The obit further reported that “Preceding her in death are (certainly not surprisingly) her parents, all her siblings . . . her husband of 51 years, Elmo V. Cook, Elmo’s parents, Elmo’s siblings . . . and her older daughter.”
In short, there are real downsides to longevity, particularly when you are the long-lived one, the person left behind to mourn all your loved ones.
Another thing I wouldn’t have expected were some unsettled feelings in the aftermath of my 40th high school reunion early this month. I was prepared to look back on the weekend and enjoy all the good feelings I normally experience after reunions (which some of my readers will remember are near and dear to my heart). But, curiously, I was uneasy. What’s up with that? I wondered. Being one of the organizers, maybe I was having a bit of postpartum planning depression now that the big push to beget the event was over. And then I read what David, one of my classmates, wrote in a thank-you note that clarified that feeling for me. He said:
“It always seems like unfinished business at the conclusion of these reunions. The conversation that you didn’t get to finish, the person across the room that you never got to approach, the expectation to run into someone the next night and it doesn’t happen and in fact, at this stage of the game, may never happen. For whatever reason, the lack of closure this year is a little more disquieting . . . ”
Yes, that’s the truth . . . the unfinished business that may never be addressed. I once heard it said, that after the 40th high school reunion, the number of reunion attendees begins diminishing rather quickly. I had managed to forget that niggling statistic until David’s words.
Steve Jobs’ death last week and the words he left behind were further reminders of the nature of things. As his contributions to our world have been circling the planet via internet, I heard a commencement speech he had given at Stanford in 2005, which had a special resonance for me. There he said: “Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
But before I could even think of resuming my post-partum reunion funk, he offered up some advice in that speech that inspired me with its ageless wisdom: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma —which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” He makes a strong case for not wasting time worrying about longevity. By his words and, more importantly, his example, Steve Jobs taught us a lot about carpe diem.
Yes, living a long life is a good thing, and getting old and being replaceable is not so good. But there is little we can do to avoid the “not so good” part of life and a lot we can do to enjoy the good part. The best approach may be to embrace the ambivalence and try to find some humor, whenever you can. Which reminds me of something I heard Garrison Keilor say recently on Prairie Home Companion in the voice of American patriot Nathan Hale, “Give me ambivalence, or give me something else!”
So, how about some cheesecake, friends?!