In less than two weeks, I will turn 80. That is old. If anyone who is 80 or older tells you something different, they are lying. Those of us at this age all know the truth. We know how we have had to slow down, endure aches and pains, and are not able to do many of the things we used to do. We know our remaining time on this dear but challenged planet is limited. And we know that over the course of our long lives we have had to deal with a lot. The first is loss. Everyone my age whom I know is an orphan. Our parents have all died, years ago in most cases. Many of us along the way have also lost close friends, spouses, and loved ones. I lost my only brother, five years my junior, over a decade ago. Embry and I lost our first child, just before what would have been her first birthday.
We all have battle scars. Some of us have dealt with serious illnesses and survived. Others have experienced broken or failed relationships. Everyone our age has experienced hardships and disappointments at one time or another. We have made our share of mistakes. But we also have had victories and accomplishments. Some may measure success by money. Others by power or fame. Acknowledgement and appreciation are also measures. I would add kindness and respect for others. I would also add trying to level the playing field and standing up for what is just and right. But when it comes down to it, I think the greatest measure is looking yourself in the mirror and being able to say you played the cards you were dealt as best as you could.
If you have reached the ripe old age of 80, you are first and foremost a survivor. When I was born in 1942, my life expectancy was 71. Well over half the people who were born in the U.S. that year are no longer with us. Given the advantages of a being born into the White middle/upper middle class, making lifestyle choices like not smoking, and having access to good medical care, most of my immediate cohort of friends are still alive and have beaten the odds. Still, my estimate is that about a third of my high school and college classmates are gone. Such is life–and death–on the planet Earth.
And just think about the changes we have witnessed as we 80-year-olds have progressed up the age scale. When I was born in 1942, growing up in Nashville, I did not know anyone who had a television set until I was almost 10. I have a distinct memory of seeing the first jet plane in the air when I was eight or nine, playing in my friend’s front yard. Telephones were around, but in Nashville everyone I knew had a party line, shared with two or more homes. And, of course, there was no such thing as an atomic bomb. The idea of sending a man to the moon was the stuff of science fiction. The computer revolution really did not start until after I graduated from college. Embry’s first job in New York in 1968 was a computer programmer, which in those days was just emerging as a cutting-edge job opportunity. Then came the 80s and 90s and beyond with countless satellites in the sky, personal computers, cell phones, high definition, flat screen televisions, the internet, GPS, and all the rest. Who would have believed in our short life span we would witness the Technology Revolution, following in the footsteps of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions? And to cap it all off, we are finishing our lives in the worst pandemic in over 100 years.
And we old folks have been around long enough to understand that life is a lot easier for some than for others. We have lived through the Cold War and others—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine—and watched as people suffered tragedy in these and other war-torn countries and suffered through revolutions and natural disasters. The Vietnam War was the defining war for us 80-year-olds. A universal draft was in effect for all young men, which during this controversial war was resisted by many and helped spawn the Peace Movement. Many of my friends where I attended Union Seminary burned their draft cards. A lot of us marched in support of them and against the war.
We have witnessed man’s inhumanity to man both in the U.S. and around the world. During my entire childhood and adolescence growing up in Nashville, Jim Crow laws governed everything. Schools were racially segregated as were eating establishments, bathrooms, parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, and neighborhoods. But in the 1960s that all began to change with the Civil Rights Movement. One of the experiences that I proudly remember is the summer Embry and I spent in Southwest Georgia working in “The Movement” with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966.
Despite the successes and failures, victories and defeats, and the hardships and challenges every human experiences during a lifetime, many people I know who have survived to age 80 realize that we White people in the U.S. were dealt a pretty good hand compared to others in this world who have experienced poverty, wars, discrimination, poor education, and lack of opportunity. Some would argue that my generation has had it easy. Our parents experienced the Great Depression and World War II. By comparison, we got what could almost be described as a free ride. And even worse: we are passing along to the next generation a planet which is threatened by global warming. Weapons of mass destruction remain ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
My emotional reaction to all this is mixed– sadness for the state of the world I have lived in for the last 80 years, and for the challenges my generation is leaving in our wake for our children and grandchildren to tackle. But at the same time, I am deeply grateful. I have beaten the odds by living this long and am still going. Note that I omit the adverb “strong.” But I am still getting in my steps, walking my 15- 20 miles a week, albeit at a pretty slow pace.
Some will call beating the odds luck. I am not sure what “luck” is, but I know it when I see it, and I know that I have had more than my share—a strong marriage, children (and grandchildren!) who have made us proud, a career that I loved, many dear friends along the way, passionate pursuits and hobbies like sailing, writing, photography, serious running, and now walking—and thanks to Embry, traveling the world. I dodged a major bullet in 1954 when I had back surgery to straighten out a spinal cord shaped like the letter “C,” caused by polio, which I experienced in 1952. The operation at the time was relatively new and would not have been available to me if had been born 10 years earlier. The prognosis then would have been eight more years before my organs, displaced by the shape of my spine, would have given out. I would not have made it much past my twentieth birthday. I am indeed “the lucky one.”
I read somewhere that “a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Maybe the same could be said for luck.
But as we codgers look back on our lives and are thankful for reaching our ninth decade, I can’t help asking the question, what does all this mean? Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives? What happens next? These are the questions that from time immemorial religion has tried to address. Some of us 80-year-olds may tell you they have all the answers based on their religious beliefs. Others—I suspect most of us—will say that even though human life has a spiritual dimension, that there is a mystery about life that cannot be explained by science, and that there is a role for religious belief and practice, we have no choice but to live –and ultimately die –with some uncertainty. As for me, all I can say is that deep down, I do believe there is a purpose in life, that the spiritual dimension is real, and that for having almost made it to 80 and (hopefully) beyond, I am profoundly grateful. What more is there to say?