How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

By Jim Tonkowich Published on February 27, 2024

I first heard the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Old Friends” in 1968 when it was released. “Can you imagine us years from today,” they crooned, “Sharing a park bench quietly? / How terribly strange to be 70.”

Back then Simon and Garfunkel were both 26 and I was 14.

Today they’re both 82 and I’m noticing how being 70 is less strange than it appeared to be in 1968. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten,” says Psalm 90:10, “and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow.”

So good for Simon and Garfunkel at fourscore and two and good for me (though I can’t help but be reminded that my dad died shortly after his threescore and ten).

Is More of Life Better?

If life is good (and it is very good) then, most people reason, it is better to have more of it for a longer and longer time. If we could make 70 (let’s not be greedy) the new 40, wouldn’t that be a good thing? I suspect that many — including many Christians — would answer with an enthusiastic, “YES!!!”

Is Finitude Better?

Bioethicist Leon Kass begs to differ. “[T]he finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not.” As a newly-minted septuagenarian, I agree.

In L’Chiam and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” Kass notes that there are no limits to our desire for a longer life. How long would be long enough? Another ten years? Fifty years? Two hundred years?

[W]e want to live and live, and not to wither and not to die. For most of us, especially under modern secular conditions in which more and more people believe this is the only life they have, the desire to prolong life span (even modestly) must be seen as expressing a desire never to grow old and die.

Upload your consciousness into the Cloud and live forever in cyberspace is just the latest iteration of this ancient human desire for immortality.

The Blessings of a Finite Human Life

Why is finitude better?

Kass cites four benefits of a limited, finite life.

First, interest and engagement. “If,” he writes, “the human life span increased by only twenty years, would the pleasures of life increase proportionately?” Would more of the same pleasures we enjoy still be pleasurable and would it make up for twenty more years of the “labor and sorrow” noted in Psalm 90? The answer to both questions would seem to be, No. We would become like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

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Second, Kass asks, “Is not the limit on our time the ground for our taking life seriously and living it passionately?” Teenagers, as they say, think they’re immortal and immortals, as Kass points out, like the Greek gods, can afford to be childish and frivolous. By contrast, Samuel Johnson declared, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The fact of finitude and death gives life seriousness and goads us to action.

Third, Kass writes, a finite life is a benefit since love and beauty depend on our finitude. The appreciation of beauty and love may very well be, he notes, “connected to the awareness of the ugliness of decay.” Without finitude, we do not love beauty or others; we take them for granted.

Finally, mortality is the source of our “virtue and moral excellence.” The nobility of laying down our lives for others depends on lives that can be laid down. Courage requires risk, risk that may not work out well. Kass writes referring to Odysseus’ choice to refuse immortality:

To suffer, to endure, to trouble oneself for the sake of home, family, community, and genuine friendship, is truly to live, and is the clear choice of this exemplary mortal. This choice is both the mark of his excellence and the basis for the visible display of his excellence in deeds noble and just. Immortality is a kind of oblivion — like death itself.

The Promise of Everlasting Life

But what about the promises of everlasting life not only in Judaism and Christianity but in other religions as well? Kass, an Orthodox Jew, addresses that as well concluding that our longing for eternity in this life reminds us that we were made for something more than this life.

Keep in mind that the Bible’s idea of Heaven is not this life writ large sans sin, suffering, and sorrow, but something if not altogether different, at least so different that St. Paul, quoting Isaiah, wrote that God has prepared for us, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Scripture gives us hints. I believe Dante’s Paradiso has hints as do the works of C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, The Last Battle). But they’re only hints and yet they all point beyond the pleasures of this life to the highest and best pleasure, that of beholding, praising, knowing, and enjoying God more and more forever. We are not promised Olympian immortality, but a share in God’s boundless life and love. In that infinite life and love, not in days without number, we will find the hope and happiness we long for whether we’re seven, seventeen, or seventy.

 

James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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