In two days famed neurologist Oliver Sacks will turn 80. The author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is rejoicing, and not just because being alive is better than the alternative.
Part of his happiness comes from looking back at his accomplishments:
At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”
Most people, dare I say, dread the aging process. Surely, they will breathe a sigh of relief if they can still breathe on their eightieth birthday, but they are terrified at the decrepitude that comes with elderhood.
Yet, I suspect that those who look forward to being 80 are more likely to attain it.
In a culture that idolizes youth, aging is not your friend. If you consider how much money so many people spend to pretend that they are still in the prime of youth, well, the number is frightening.
By happenstance, this morning’s Daily Mail has a cover story about the Hollywood stars who have used cosmetic surgery to turn their faces into what the paper calls: “waxwork horrors.”
There are worse things in life than looking your age.
Sacks wants to make a more important point. With age, he says, comes wisdom, and wisdom should not be dismissed so easily:
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.
It would be a better world if we all learned to age gracefully. And it would be a far better world if we respected the wisdom that comes with age more than we idolize the intemperate passions of youth.