On Growing Old

By Bobby Neal Winters Published on June 16, 2023

Death is an odd thing. Or, I should say, the timing of death is an odd thing. Death is too certain, too inevitable, to be odd. It comes to all of us with mathematical certainty. I know that I am going to die.

But the time of our demise is a mystery until it is a done thing. Even those who are known to be terminally ill will not know the moment of their death, but only the relative short period of time — days, months, maybe even years — what mathematicians call an interval, in which it will probably (but not certainly) occur. The rest of us have longer periods. Mine is about the next 40 years.

I turned 60 last year. I’m feeling pretty good. I am alert. While I don’t have as much energy as I did when I was 20, my thoughts are clearer and more grounded in reality. Now I work better, not harder. I take better care of myself now than I did then. I have also lost the sense of immortality that I had at that tender age. That is to say, I am not nearly as stupid as I was then.

I now know that one day I will die.

But … I’m only 60.

I’m Only 60

Yes, only 60. We live in a time when we can say “only.” In the last year, Barbara Walters passed away at the age of 93, Pope Benedict XVI and Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 95. Her husband Prince Philip died two months before his 100th birthday. Clint Eastwood is 92 and still making movies. He may be riding the High Plains in the sky by the time this hits print, but today he is still working.

Closer to home, I have friends who are in their 70s, 80s, and beyond who are still active. It is not unreasonable for me to be making plans for the next 10, 20, or even 30 years. It is not unreasonable to think that I have at least 10 productive years left. Given the examples above maybe more.

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But how to spend those years? There are numerous permutations to consider. I know retirees who wished they’d retired earlier; I know retirees who wish they’d stayed at work. I know people working who I wish would retire; I know retired people I wish were still working. And there are those who have combined the two by retiring, but not letting anybody in HR know about it.

But how should I spend those years? I begin to hear my old companion that poem by Tennyson in my head:

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

While I’ve not striven with gods in the strictest sense, I’ve done my share of striving one way or the other. Some of the folks I strove with thought they were gods or knew as much as God.

Still Striving, Sort Of

I am still striving. Sort of. I’ve spent most of my life following the path of least resistance. I’ve been blown like a leaf in the wind. In the spring, a thunderstorm can blow at a leaf and it will just flap in the gale, but in the autumn the gentlest breeze can take a leaf to the ground. The leaf needs to become more intentional if it’s not to spend the end of the year in a puddle of muddy slush in the street getting run over by snow plows going back and forth.

There have been times when I have been intentional. I remember vividly the day I walked over to ask the girl who later became my wife out on our first date. I had to screw my courage to the sticking place. I think that turned out well.

I have to do that more now that I’m 60 and finally know I’m going to die. With my 10 or 20 or 30 years of productive life left, I want to be the leaf in spring, not the leaf in fall.

This leads me to think about a great American thinker: Yogi Berra. Yogi said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Who could argue with that? I interpret it to mean: Make a decision and own it. You have to go on, and there ain’t no going back.

Life Gives You Forks

Life continually gives you forks to take. Even at my age. More to the point, God keeps asking you to grow closer to Him and to serve Him. You get to the fork, pray or not pray? And the fork, love your neighbor or yourself? And many other forks, depending on who you are and where you are in life. When you come to a fork, take it.

Whether you die at 27, 44, 60, or 95, life is too short to waste a minute of it. Try to do something that makes you love every day. Embrace life and the living of it. And there is some living left to do, even at 60.

 

Bobby Neal Winters is associate dean of the college of arts and sciences and a university professor at Pittsburg State University. A native of Harden City, Oklahoma, he blogs at Red Neck Math and Okie in Exile.

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