Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

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.

Read Russell’s “How to Grow Old” in full here. And see many more elo­quent med­i­ta­tions on aging and death—from Hen­ry Miller, André Gide, Ursu­la K. Le Guin, and Grace Paley—at Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to Peo­ple Liv­ing 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Bertrand Rus­sell: The Every­day Ben­e­fit of Phi­los­o­phy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncer­tain­ty

Bertrand Rus­sell Author­i­ty and the Indi­vid­ual (1948) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (17)
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  • lisa says:

    Great tes­ti­mo­ni­al ad. Thanks Josh!!! Very well tar­get­ed to a 70 year old, got me to donate!!!

  • Centauri4 says:

    This is a very gen­tle bit of advice and poten­tial­ly use­ful for much younger men as well. I have heard of grow­ing old grace­ful­ly and yet seem sur­round­ed by more exam­ples of peo­ple who are not, with only 2 or 3 exam­ples, every­one else has worked hard until their bod­ies began fail­ing in one way or anoth­er! This time of year (Christ­mas) is par­tic­u­lar­ly stress­ful for some rea­son, and I am begin­ning to under­stand why!

  • P. Scott says:

    Use­less. He obvi­ous­ly is quite sec­u­lar. Sec­u­lar IMO = stew­pud. A guy who does not believe in God but rather.…well.…that we came from NOTHING.…just kind of hap­pened, wants to share his wis­dom? LMAO!!! What wis­dom? We all die. NO big­gie for true Chris­tians. Big big big­gie for sec­u­lar athe­ists. After all, this is their ONLY enti­ty, their only being. What screams at me is why the hell that they would give a squat that their “work” con­tin­ues. I mean, THEY’RE DEAD, GONE FOR GOOD, NEVER EVER TO RETURN (in their belief sys­tem), so WTF would they give a sh^t about their efforts endur­ing? Sec­u­lar athe­ists. Talk about STEWWWWWWPUD and IRRATIONAL.

  • MW says:

    Is this a joke?

  • deborah barnes says:

    “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” I get this and yes is par­tial­ly true but with­out ego and per­son­al emo­tion­al ties, the why part gets very stale. There is an under­ly­ing old sto­ry here, full of beliefs that that we inher­it­ed via cul­ture, for­mal edu­ca­tion, expe­ri­ences that are pruned, edit­ed to fit the tem­plate we are taught to “see” etc! I sus­pect our ances­tors did they best they could under the sto­ries they inher­it­ed, how­ev­er what is hap­pen­ing now can be the launch of an entire­ly New Sto­ry, one that aligns emo­tions to con­scious­ness to what we actu­al­ize. If we are to cre­ate a bet­ter world, we need to ask deep­er, wider ques­tions. The poly­maths approach might be awk­ward in old par­a­digm there­fore time to change the par­a­digm. Con­sid­er how the micro­bio­me con­nects our bod­ies to greater ecosys­tems , the rela­tion­ships the inter­ac­tions con­nect us all . The per­son­al rela­tion­ships are aspects of our envi­ron­ments, there­fore step­ping away, the aes­thet­ics answer to sep­a­rate does­n’t take quan­tum physics, soci­ol­o­gy, biol­o­gy, his­to­ry etcin­to account Looks like a run away attempt rather than a fac­ing of and an accept­ing of life on life’s terms.

  • Andrew B. says:

    To imply that Chris­tians don’t fear death is sim­ply untrue. It is a uni­ver­sal human expe­ri­ence, regard­less of any reli­gion or phi­los­o­phy. If the idea of an afterlife–as taught to you through your own read­ings, tra­di­tions and consultations–soothes you, I sup­pose you can take com­fort in that. How­ev­er, if your after­life is lim­it­ed only to the souls of white west­ern “Chris­tians,” it seems rather nar­row giv­en the con­text of human his­to­ry, cul­tures, beliefs and expe­ri­ences. In that sense, you’ve com­plete­ly missed the author’s point.

  • M.Z. says:

    This mes­sage would be use­less to the psy­chi­cal­ly oppressed. Altru­ism and wish­ing well for human­i­ty occurs innate­ly. One’s morals do not come nat­u­ral­ly from a book, let alone yours. We moved past that dur­ing the Euro­pean enlight­en­ment cen­turies ago. The style of your com­ment is good evi­dence to sup­port who is real­ly “STEWWWWWWPUD and IRRATIONAL”; you, or Bertrand Rus­sell? Real­i­ty does not care about the imag­i­nary, com­plete­ly sub­jec­tive sys­tem of beliefs all humans can hold. I feel sor­ry for you and any­one who you influ­ence in this world.

  • A says:

    Good morn­ing — You’re enti­tled to your opin­ion. How­ev­er, you’d have more chance of being tak­en seri­ous­ly if you tem­pered your mes­sage to be inclu­sive rather than abra­sive or exhib­it­ed any com­mand of the his­tor­i­cal impact of reli­gion on the advance­ment of knowl­edge and soci­ety.

  • PD says:

    Bil­ly Gra­ham, the man that marched mil­lions up the stair case of heav­en was afraid of dying. He CLUNG to every breath and took advan­tage of every med­ical inter­ven­tion to keep him alive. Hmmm.…..

  • Y. Gach says:

    Some­time around 1995 a friend and I were in a small coun­try store in New­fane Ver­mont.
    We were talk­ing to Earl, the crusty old pro­pri­etor who, after many years of smok­ing, car­ried an oxy­gen tank around with him. In through the door came John Ken­neth Gail­braith, the famous Har­vard econ­o­mist, who owned a sec­ond home in near­by Jamaica.

    How you doin’ Earl? said Gail­braith.
    “I’m get­ting there” said Earl “and you John?”

    “I’m aging grace­ful­ly Earl” said Gail­braith (who at the time was just shy of 90).

    Will nev­er for­get that scene.

  • Greg Shore says:

    “Use­less” for YOU as a hard core “believ­er”.
    So why not just shut up and live your life as you see fit.
    Your junk response serves nobody; at least Rus­sel­l’s mus­ings (they are not march­ing orders) may res­onate with some of the folks who do not con­form to your nar­row real­i­ty.
    Sad for you… enjoy your after­life — clear­ly this life is a strug­gle for you.

  • Margaret says:

    There is noth­ing more that I can say then what has already been said. I just want­ed to express my com­pli­ments to the peo­ple who intel­li­gent­ly respond­ed to the unin­tel­li­gent poster. It gives me hope that the entire coun­try is not stu­pid, so thank you all for that!

  • Pantagruel31 says:

    There is, how­ev­er, the idea of hav­ing lived for one’s val­ues and thus to make the world bet­ter (as we define it intro­spec­tive­ly — rather than appeal­ing to the author­i­ty of a sup­pos­ed­ly divine­ly-inspired col­lec­tion of writ­ings).

    Albert Camus’ _The Myth of Sisyphus_ and Sartre’s writ­ings also deal with meaning/purpose which address the rel­e­vance of our human actions (and — like Bertrand Rus­sell — they were athe­ist as well).

  • Bill W. says:

    So he was human, then? The truth is, not that Gra­ham has any­thing to do with this arti­cle, is that God kept Bil­ly around for as long as he did, to con­tin­ue his Christ-cen­tered good-works for as long as pos­si­ble. Gra­ham saved thou­sands of peo­ple from an eter­ni­ty in Hell, even on his deathbed. His reward? A few extra years from God, with his fam­i­ly, before he earned his final reward of an eter­ni­ty in Heav­en with Christ. How oh-so-ter­ri­ble.

  • Chris says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I would imag­ine not.

  • J. Hardtime says:

    Any indi­vid­ual, who at this time in history–with all of its discoveries–still believes in Bronze Age myths, well, you’re kind of becom­ing a minor­i­ty. That’s all right though. We can chalk your com­ment up as a death rat­tle of that mode of thought. Hmmm… Ratio­nal thought and phi­los­o­phy, as opposed to Bronze Age invis­i­ble-man-in-the-sky sto­ries told to you when your wee mind is still San­ta eli­gi­ble, I’m going to have to go with ratio­nal thought and phi­los­o­phy.

    Besides, your rant up there, call­ing peo­ple stu­pid, Jesus would not be proud. Keep rat­tling that Chris­t­ian Death Rat­tle, though. If any­thing, it is mild­ly enter­tain­ing watch­ing some­one clutch to a belief sys­tem out of igno­rance and fear. Have a qual­i­ty life!

  • Robert says:

    Heav­en is on earth.
    Heav­en is in your heart and your mind.
    Enough with labels.
    Find peace with­in your­self hope your fam­i­ly the best you can. And don’t expect for­give­ness from neg­a­tive peo­ple in your life.
    It’s not up to Jesus or God or any­one else to make it right.
    Find your space, sooth your demons,
    Make your peace spread the love.
    And lose any­one who sucks the life out of you includ­ing fam­i­ly.

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