Life Lessons From 100-Year-Olds: Timeless Advice in a Short Film

And there­fore my opin­ion is, that when once forty years old we should con­sid­er our time of life as an age to which very few arrive; for see­ing that men do not usu­al­ly last so long, it is a sign that we are pret­ty well advanced; and since we have exceed­ed the bounds which make the true mea­sure of life, we ought not to expect to go much fur­ther. —Michel de Mon­taigne

After his retire­ment at age 38, renais­sance essay­ist Michel de Mon­taigne devot­ed sev­er­al pages to the sub­ject of mor­tal­i­ty, as press­ing an issue for him as for the clas­si­cal philoso­phers he adored. And no less press­ing an issue for us, of course. The brute fact of death aside, the qual­i­ty of our lives has lit­tle in com­mon with those of Cato, Seneca, or Mon­taigne him­self. We meet needs and wants with com­mands to Alexa. We are beset by glob­al anx­i­eties they nev­er imag­ined, and by reme­dies that would have saved mil­lions in their time. Even in the age of Covid-19, life isn’t near­ly so pre­car­i­ous as it was in 16th cen­tu­ry France.

But whether we set the thresh­old at 40, 80, or 100, “to die of old age is a death rare, extra­or­di­nary, and sin­gu­lar,” Mon­taigne argued. Few attain it today. “It is the last and extremest sort of dying… the bound­ary of life beyond which we are not to pass, and which the law of nature has pitched for a lim­it not to be exceed­ed.” For these rea­sons and more, we look to the very aged for wis­dom: they have attained what most of us will not, and can only look back­wards, see­ing the full­ness of life, if they have clar­i­ty, in panoram­ic hind­sight. Such vision is the sub­ject of the 2016 short film above, in which three unique­ly lucid cen­te­nar­i­ans dis­pense advice, reflect on their expe­ri­ence, and rem­i­nisce about the jazz age.

“I have always been lucky,” says now-108-year-old Tereza Harp­er. “I’ve nev­er been unlucky.” No one lives to such an advanced age with­out fac­ing a lit­tle hard­ship. Harp­er immi­grat­ed to Eng­land from Czecho­slo­va­kia dur­ing World War II to reunite with her father, who had been a pris­on­er of war. She lived to wit­ness the many hor­rors of the 20th cen­tu­ry and the many of the 21st so far. And yet, she says, “Every­thing makes me hap­py. I love talk­ing to peo­ple. I like doing things. I like going out shop­ping. Once I go out shop­ping, I don’t real­ly want to come back…. I’m not going yet. I’m still strong. I’m very very strong. I nev­er real­ized how strong I am.” ”

What is the source of such strength and joy in the ordi­nary rep­e­ti­tions of dai­ly life? A pro­found con­tent­ment marked by a sense of com­ple­tion, for one thing. “I don’t think there’s any­thing that I real­ly need to do,” Harp­er says, “because I’ve done prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing that I’ve ever want­ed to do in the past.” Like­wise, 101-year-old Cliff Crozi­er, who died last year, remarks, “I think I’ve done all that I want­ed to do.” Lat­er, he adds some nuance: “I don’t have many fail­ures,” he says. “If I’m mak­ing a cake and it fails it becomes a pud­ding.” (He also says, “It always pleas­es me that I can keep rob­bing the gov­ern­ment with my pen­sion.”)

Are there regrets? Nat­u­ral­ly. 102-year-old John Den­er­ley, who passed away in 2018, says rue­ful­ly, “If I’d have been more atten­tive at school in my ear­ly life, I’d have stud­ied more, and hard­er…. Well, I didn’t do too bad in the end. But I think the soon­er you start study­ing the bet­ter.” Crozi­er express­es regrets over the way he treat­ed his father, a rela­tion­ship that still caus­es him grief. These three are not, after all, super­hu­mans. They are sub­ject to the same pains as the rest of us. But they have achieved a van­tage from which to see the whole of life from its lim­it. Whether or not we achieve the same, we can all learn from them how to make the most of the “extra­or­di­nary for­tune,” as Mon­taigne wrote, “which has hith­er­to kept us above ground.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Har­vard Psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer Shows How Men­tal Atti­tude Can Poten­tial­ly Reverse the Effects of Aging

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wis­dom on Con­fronting Aging and Dying

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

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  • WW says:

    In 1978, we had a cel­e­bra­tion at our church for a man who turned 107. A news-crew was there to record the event, the Era of Live-tele­vi­sion. Upon the Ron Bur­gundy-type anchor ask­ing the man his secret to a long-life, the old man replied: “I have a steak, and a 6‑pack of Blue Rib­bon Beer, every day…and I get myself a col­ored-hook­er to rock-my-world every week!” There was stunned-silence, could of heard a pin-drop. Good for him!

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