Last week, I gave thanks for the 93rd birthday of my mother Elsie, a role model for aging with dignity. As we are about to wrap up yet another calendar year, I am contemplating how fast time flies. I know I sound old saying that, but please indulge me as I continue to explore the best approach to growing older.
I’ve written often of my admiration of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, the dynamic duo who lead Berkshire Hathaway, still going strong at ages 93 and 99. On the flip side of the aging story, a couple of my recent posts tell the story of the painful decline of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who recently died at age 90. Whether our final innings resemble Elsie and Buffett/Munger or Feinstein is largely out of our control. But, as we age, there are quality of life aspects that are within our power. What’s the playbook for making the most of our final years?
I wrote last week of The Book of Charlie by David Von Drehle, recounting the story of his neighbor Charlie Smith who lived to 109. As I explained in that post, Charlie found contentment by moving from stage one of life (when he was a “complexifier”) to stage two (when he was a “simplifier”). By simplifying his playbook, Charlie let go of things not in his power, and focused on things he could control: “his own actions, his own emotions, his outlook, his grit.” Charlie’s philosophy boiled down to making good decisions. “For all the books on all the shelves of all the world’s libraries, life must be lived as a series of discrete moments and individual decisions. What we face might be complicated, but what we do about it is simple.” Per Charlie, it’s this simple: “Do the right thing.”
Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent echoes this theme of making good decisions in his essay “Old Age Is Like a Debenture” in The Wall Street Journal. Vincent teaches the importance of knowing “when and how to leave each stage of life.” Baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams (whose final at-bat was a home run) knew how to “do the right thing.” Willie Mays and Yogi Berra didn’t—they kept trying to play after their skills had declined. Opera singer Beverly Sills got it right: “I know that to continue would not be worthy of what my audience deserved.” By knowing when to fold ’em, we can move elegantly into that second stage where we simplify life, as we ”surrender those things that are risky, silly, or just plain stupid.” DiMaggio, Williams, and Sills are role models for making a graceful transition from stage one to stage two.
An essential element of living an enriched life during the second stage is to cultivate quality relationships. Studies show that those who enjoy socialization and meaningful relationships live lives that are longer and healthier (both physically and mentally). I’ve written before of my close connection with about 20 of my law school classmates who travel together regularly and are in touch with each other daily. Because of our annual canoe outings, we call ourselves the “Canoe Brothers.” My dear friend (and fellow Canoe Brother) Bill Parrish shared a poem with me that puts an exclamation point on the goals of spending time with quality people and simplifying our lives as we age. It’s titled “The Valuable Time of Maturity.”
“…I have more past than future.
I feel like that boy who got a bowl of cherries—
At first, he gobbled them,
But when he realized there were only a few left,
He began to taste them intensely.
I no longer have time to deal with mediocrity.
I do not want to be in meetings where flamed egos parade.
…I want to live close to human people, very human, away from those filled with self-importance.
…I’m in a hurry to live with the intensity that only maturity can give.
I do not intend to waste any of the remaining cherries.”
For those of us aiming to enjoy intensely our remaining cherries, Elizabeth O’Brien offers more words of wisdom in a Barron’s article earlier this year. She says to continue to find your life’s purpose. “Having a reason to get out of bed in the morning is key for emotional and physical health.” Some do this by continuing to work well into their 80’s. But if staying on the job into your octogenarian years isn’t right for you, I reiterate the example of my 93-year-old mother Elsie. Elsie is taking more of the Charlie Smith approach to fulfillment, simplifying her life and focusing on relationships and human interaction. By taking the step to move from living alone in her home to a beautiful community at The Stayton in Fort Worth, she has made many new friends, participates in stimulating programs, and never dines alone. By staying engaged and interactive, Elsie looks and feels decades younger than 93.
As we age, I invite you to join the Canoe Brothers and Elsie in making the most of our senior years and intensely enjoying each remaining cherry.
One more thing: Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a dear family friend, age 44, was tragically killed in a car accident along with his two kids. We are heartbroken. Let’s start savoring life’s cherries even before we grow old. We never know what tomorrow brings. Life is precious and fragile.
Marvin E. Blum
Pictured above: Marvin Blum (shortest) and Bill Parrish (tallest) intensely enjoying life’s cherries on a recent Canoe Brothers trip. Thanks to Bill for sharing the poem “The Valuable Time of Maturity” about tasting intensely each of life’s remaining cherries.