On the Plus Side
Getting ready

How can I die when my New Yorker subscription still has almost a year to run? And – in a reckless challenge to the fates – I’m sure to survive for at least another 24 months, because my driver’s license doesn’t expire for another two years. (I can’t expire before it does, can I?) You’ll fully appreciate the arrogance of this point of view if you know that I’m oozing into my low-80s.
Optimism? Faith? Or some kind of superstitious bargain with the Cosmos? The logic is about the same as that employed by Thurber’s cartoon matron, demanding of the bank teller, “How can I be out of money when I still have all these checks left?”

I’d never cross a street or mail a letter if I lived in the constant expectation of evil. If I chose to escape all risk, I’d sleep on the floor to avoid falling out of bed. I’d put on gloves before shaking hands with anyone. To evade all perils, I’d never go outdoors or write down anything – especially on Facebook.

The Universe, it seems, is basically indifferent to my plans. I find Fate somewhat unreliable. Things don’t always go according to my design – in fact, they rarely do. That annoying reality might be a cause for despair and paralysis, but I prefer to view it as adding the excitement of uncertainty to the ordinary business of living – surprise can delight; the unexpected can present a challenge.

While I continue to plan and prepare, I’m conscious that the sudden and abrupt stumble may very well lie just ahead. We all found that out when we were learning to walk. We simultaneously learned that we needed to pick ourselves up and try again.

“I am haunted by a vision in which medical science cures everything and makes everyone immortal – and I am the last person to die before scientists get it right,” I read a while back on Slate.com. Me too.

Despite our best efforts and the best efforts of science, of course we will die. We don’t know when, where or how, but there is no “if.”

We all are aging all the time and the average age in the Western world is creeping upward. More and more of us find ourselves classified as middle-aged or elderly. We can’t do anything about it. And – mostly – we’re not happy about it.

Each new decade is a first time for each of us, but aging is not a new issue. In 44 B.C., Cicero speculated about why humans are disheartened by the prospect of growing old. He came up with four reasons: First, it withdraws us from many activities that formerly we were able to pursue; second, our bodies grow weaker; third, it deprives us of many familiar physical pleasures; and fourth, it moves us closer to death. Not one to merely view this with alarm, he also considered how we might diminish our fears and the depredations of our inevitable decline.

Much of his remedy is that boring old stuff your mom nagged you about, and every stress-reduction and self-help guru repeats endlessly. Old Marcus advised that to make the Ultimate easier, we need to prepare by keeping ourselves agile, by living moderately, by eating sensibly. We can’t start too early to get ready for “later” by getting and staying in shape.

Another part of his prescription is also familiar: grow, nourish and maintain your social support system. (That’s not a phrase Cicero would have used). Develop friendships, make yourself part of a community, protect and nurture the relationships with people who are important to you.

He also advised that we cultivate our taste for the mental, intellectual and artistic pleasures early on, so that life still will have savor when other pleasures ebb.

Unfortunately, Cicero did not get to enjoy the fruits of his own advice about finding happiness in the advancing years; he was executed for political reasons at the age of 63.

In a further display of my arrogance, let me suggest adding another ingredient to his recipe. Call it lively interest, excitement, verve, ardor, zeal, ecstasy – in short, enthusiasm seems to me a quality well worth encouraging as an antidote to the depression of old age. As past enjoyments recede, it serves us well to have access to those pursuits that continue to offer us a kick, a thrill, a delight.

I’m enthusiastic about this young century, the love I feel for my family, my friends, my cat, and the things I still want to accomplish.

Hank Basayne is a San Francisco minister and writer who is especially curious about what those next issues of The New Yorker will bring.