Dying young

Longtime, loyal readers may find the following vaguely familiar. It ran in this space way back in 2007. But as the year dwindles down, I think it’s worth repeating as a reminder of a choice we can all still make.

It’s September 1914. A 12-year old farm boy is rewarded for his summer’s hard work with a trip to a rural Illinois county fair. Wide-eyed, he takes in the freak show, the pungent animal smells, the amazing sword swallower, and the bearded lady. He tries his skill at pitching baseballs at a pyramid of glass bottles. No luck. Wandering, with frequent snatches at his cone of cotton candy, he pauses at a sign with the compelling invitation to “Know Your Future.” He finds a dime in his pocket and warily enters the darkened tent.

An old woman in garish Gypsy costume motions him to the seat opposite her at a worn table with a crystal ball in its center. She tells him he’s a good, hard-working boy with talents yet unexplored. “You have a gift to give to the world,” she adds. Then a frown crosses her face. A long silence and then she breaks the cardinal rule of fortunetellers by giving him the bad news. “You will die young,” she says.

Shaken and sobered, he slowly walks through the carnival’s other attractions, preoccupied, unaware of the crude, showy and noisy environment begging for his attention.

That night, sitting on the edge of his bed, head in hands, he wonders what the prophecy really means, how he would die, and when. And what did she mean about unexplored talents? Next morning, while accomplishing his chores, he makes a decision that will shape and inform the rest of his life. “If I don’t have long to live, if I’m really going to die young, I can’t waste any time. I’d better get going!”

And he does. With his strict upbringing and few distractions, he becomes a self-disciplined, independent and somewhat isolated person. He reads avidly, majors in agriculture in college, then decides to prepare for the ministry and switches to religion. From time to time he remembers the fortuneteller’s prediction and – in his 20s – notices that he is still alive.

He marries, moves to New York, studies theology, switches to psychology, and earns his Ph.D. in 1931. Nine years later, he accepts a full professorship at Ohio State. Still driven by the belief that he hasn’t much time left, he applies himself vigorously to his work, publishing his first book the next year. His career blossoms. He makes major, original contributions to the profession of psychology. He becomes widely respected and internationally known. He is a warm, accessible, much-loved human being. He is active, enjoys a devoted family life, and finds pleasure in his work, his accomplishments and his relationships. He is nominated for a Nobel Prize.

In his 40s, 50s and 60s, he occasionally remembers the dire prophecy from his youth. And finally, in his 70s, the light dawns. He finally understands what the Gypsy fortuneteller really meant: “At whatever age you die, you will die young!” Carl Rogers lived a full and fruitful life until his actual death at the age of 85.

Now, as an octogenarian myself, I know that staying active, staying curious, staying connected with others are the essential ingredients for staying young. Most of the elders I know feel their age physically, as the packaging deteriorates and body parts become less reliable. But ask them how old they are in their minds and, generally, they’ll report feeling younger than their years.

Sure, I’m winded when I walk up a hill. My fingers often have trouble with buttons. I’m cranky when I don’t get my afternoon nap. But meeting new people, finding out about them, reading an engaging novel, listening to beloved familiar music, scratching my cat’s ears – all are ways of continuing to feel fully alive. I’m as interested in what’s next as I was at 30. Focusing on what I used to be or focusing on what’s possible now is a choice. I prefer to stay in the present so that I, too, can die young.

Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan. He is busily working on a book to be titled “I’m Still Vertical, Thank You!” E-mail: hank@marinatimes.com