Thursday, April 27, 2017
THE THIRD AGE AND RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE
I’ve often talked about my “dual life” as a Southern Yankee, born and reared in the US heartland, and almost magically transported to a brand new life, first in Europe and then in South America. But it’s not as two-staged as it sounds. Like life itself—and I suspect that this happens to a lot of people who end up living in places and cultures that are far distant from those of their birth, whether they ever live abroad or not—this has felt more like a three-stage existence, not two.
I think this has to do partially with the fact that life, as such, tends to be divided this way: young, middle-aged and old. But having reached “a ripe old age”, as it were—to my utter surprise, since I spent most of the first stage and part of the second convinced I’d be unlikely to make it to the third—I no longer think of these milestones in that way, but rather, merely as stages one, two and three. That’s why I’ve always liked, and now subscribe to, a Spanish-speaking school of thought that refers to stage three not as “old age” but as “la tercera edad” (the third age).
There are those of my own age and some of slightly younger generations who sometimes try to pull the wool over my eyes by saying I shouldn’t think of myself as old. Sixty, they say (somewhat self-servingly, I assume), is the new forty. When I point out that I passed the sixty marker many moons ago, they remind me that if sixty is the new forty, then seventy is the new fifty and since I’ve still to attain that lofty number (all things come to those who wait), I’m “just middle-aged.” Well...perhaps...if I plan to live to be a hundred and thirty-four. I have a friend who entertains that goal. She seems convinced she’ll live to be a hundred and fifty at least. More power to her. I mean, having come this far, I’m clearly not ruling anything out. But I figure, statistically at least, it’s highly unlikely.
I mean, statistically speaking, the average American male lives to be around seventy-seven. But I have to consider that I’ve spent most of my adult life in Argentina, where the average male lives to be seventy-three. When sixty-eight is staring you in the face, these figures can give you a sudden adrenalin rush. Statistically—just statistically, mind you—I could surmise that I have between half a decade and a decade left to live. But the secret that third-agers seldom share is that it’s not like you’re suddenly enlightened on reaching stage three. Okay, yes, you may have learned a few tricks by this time that the young and the middle-aged don’t have a clue about, but the fact is that you’re still pretty much as clueless about the mystery of life as you were when you first started searching for its meaning and you certainly don’t go around running the stats in your head and saying to yourself, “Holy crap! Five more years? I’d better get a move on!”
It’s more like what Shakespeare said through the mouth of Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But also, and less depressingly surely, like Alexander Pope said:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast...”
So that just when we thought we would have everything neatly figured out, we still find ourselves going, “I wonder what life has in store for me?”
That said, however, it’s not like I’m throwing in the towel. Not by a longshot. And that’s why I have fully embraced—quite recently, actually, since I found sixty and the first couple of years after that decade first descended on me to be particularly depressing landmarks—the idea of “a third age”, rather than old age, as a philosophy worthy of incorporation.
And although I might try and make it sound like I don’t give a damn about statistics, you do have them in the back of your head, if not, perhaps, as sharply focused as they should be. By way of example, I remember a TV show I liked a lot as a teen—a rather dark, existentialist teen, admittedly—called “Run for Your Life”. It starred Ben Gazarra as attorney Paul Bryan, who, in the first episode (1965) receives news from his doctor that he has a terminal illness that will only allow him to live for another nine to eighteen months—despite which, the series’ success kept it on the air until 1968.
In it, Paul decides to leave his successful law practice behind, walk away from his life and, like the proverbial guy who goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back, opts to take the money and run. His vague idea when he sets out is to “do all of the things he never had time for.” But what happens in reality is that, along the way, he meets up with a wide variety of people who end up touching his life and him theirs, leading him through every situation from bittersweet romance and passion to high adventure and imminent danger.
I enjoyed all of the human dramas that unfolded with each new episode, but what attracted me most was the point of view—that of a guy who pretty much knew how far his “non-renewable resource” was going to carry him and so could face each new day with no illusions about the future. The future simply didn’t exist, so he was free to live life on his own terms and stepping into others’ lives with no commitment but the one he was willing to make to them in the here and now.
It seemed to me a brilliant way to live. And although many would have tried to tell me that it was a good story, a good escape, but hardly realistic, I would have argued then (as I still might now) that Paul Bryan’s stance couldn’t have been more realistic, and that people might be a lot happier in their lives if that were precisely how they lived...as if tomorrow might never come.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years, it's that living like Paul Bryan in “Run for Your Life” is, quite possibly, the best and happiest way a human being can live. But I’ve learned it by observing other lives, not by practicing what I preach. Indeed, some of the happiest and most successful people in their fields have lived precisely that way. Many of them have been artists and, as some people might point out, they’ve had to make certain sacrifices, in terms of what others might consider “a normal life”, but have, I believe, reaped other satisfactions that most of us only dream of.
You might be asking where on earth I’m going with all of this. The answer is, I’m not sure. I’m thinking out loud, as I have been thinking to myself for many years now. And I guess the best response is that I’ve come to the conclusion that grabbing life by the tail and riding it to the stars requires risk. In fact, it requires risking life itself.
But the other part of that response is, perhaps, that those of us who are lucky enough to make it through stages one and two and reach The Third Age need to remember the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra who had several great observations to make about waking up and going through life with constant awareness: One was, “You can see a lot just by lookin’.” Another was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And the last one was, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Admittedly, as in Willie Nelson and Leon Russell’s A Song for You, “I’ve been so many places in my life and time...” But still, I can’t help having the feeling I could have risked more, lived more, done more if I’d lived every day like it was the last one and let the future take care of itself.
But as Yogi said, it ain’t over till it’s over, and I’ve seen clearly, finally, that the way to look at this new third stage is as a liberation from the enslavement of a future that simply doesn’t exist...nor has it ever, anywhere but in my mind.