Advice on how to grow old frequently comes from such banal or bloodless sources that we can be forgiven for ignoring it. Public health officials who dispense wisdom may have good intentions; pharmaceutical companies who do the same may not. In either case, the messages arrive in a form that can bring on the despair they seek to avert. Elderly people in well-lit photographs stroll down garden paths, ballroom dance, do yoga. Bulleted lists punctuated by dry citations issue gently-worded guidelines for sensible living. Inoffensive blandness as a prescription for living well.
At the other extreme are profiles of exceptional cases—relatively spry individuals who have passed the century mark. Rarely do their stories conform to the model of abstemiousness enjoined upon us by professionals. But we know that growing old with dignity entails so much more than diet and exercise or making it to a hundred-and-two. It entails facing death as squarely as we face life. We need writers with depth, sensitivity, and eloquence to deliver this message. Bertrand Russell does just that in his essay “How to Grow Old,” written when the philosopher was 81 (sixteen years before he eventually passed away, at age 97).
Russell does not flatter his readers’ rationalist conceits by citing the latest science. “As regards health,” he writes, “I have nothing useful to say…. I eat and drink whatever I like, and sleep when I cannot keep awake.” (We are inclined, perhaps, to trust him on these grounds alone.) He opens with a drily humorous paragraph in which he recommends, “choose your ancestors well,” then he issues advice on the order of not dwelling on the past or becoming a burden to your children.
But the true kernel of his short essay, “the proper recipe for remaining young,” he says, came to him from the example of a maternal grandmother, who was so absorbed in her life, “I do not believe she ever had time to notice she was growing old.” “If you have wide and keen interests and activities in which you can still be effective,” Russell writes. “you will have no reason to think about the merely statistical fact of the number of years you have already lived, still less of the probable shortness of your future.”
Such interests, he argues, should be “impersonal,” and it is this quality that loosens our grip. As Maria Popova puts it, “Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger.” The idea is familiar; in Russell’s hands it becomes a meditation on mortality as ever-timely as the so-often-quoted passages from Donne’s “Meditation XVII.” Philosopher and writer John G. Messerly calls Russell’s concluding passage “one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.”
The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.