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“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself” (Eubie Blake).
IT IS IRONIC THAT IN A CULTURE SO OBSESSED WITH YOUTH WE ALSO WANT TO INCREASE OUR LONGEVITY. We applaud every advance in medical science that would delay death a few more years, but then we suppose, ironically, that we would continue to be young during those added years. But we can’t have it both ways, can we? Consider a few ways our thinking about longevity is confused.
We value longevity, but we don’t value old age. Just as everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die, it’s also true that everybody wants to live a long time but nobody wants to be old. Yet if we’re serious about increasing our lifespan, we need to start granting more honor to old age. Youth was never meant to be anything but the beginning stage in life, and we shouldn’t try to hang on to it so desperately. Old age is a good thing. It’s what a long life is all about.
We value longevity, but we want to quit working as soon as possible. I agree with Carl Hubbell, who said, “A fellow doesn’t last long on what he has done. He’s got to keep on delivering as he goes along.” It is inconsistent to want to be both first and last among our peers: the first to retire and the last to die. There’s a vital link between productivity and longevity. If we want to boost our longevity, we need to think less about the leisure of retirement and more about the usefulness of work.
We value longevity, but we don’t really know why. We have no definite idea what we would do with a long life; we just know that we want one. Consequently, those of us who end up living a long time sometimes have little to show for it in the way of accomplishment. “Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time” (Athenodorus).
The point is, longevity does little good for us if it involves nothing more than additional years of living. What we should want is to spend our years well — whether those years be many or few. A long life is hardly worth aspiring to if it would not be spent making a principled, productive contribution to the world.
“It is vanity to desire a long life and to take no heed to a good life” (Thomas à Kempis).