Somewhere among the tiniest twists of our DNA, we are programmed to fear death, to avoid it at all costs and to live. To Live!
To live is, borrowing from Star Trek, the prime directive.
In addition to the practicality and pleasures of our five senses, each is designed to alert us to danger when there is a threat to our own life and, often, others' lives too.
In many cases, it is sub-verbal. We touch something too hot, our hand pulls back on its own. A kid runs in front of the car, we slam on the brakes – no thought necessary.
So fundamental is the human (and other animal) imperative to live that young people, against all evidence, believe they are immortal. I once felt that way and undoubtedly you did too.
Now I know better.
One of the ways that old age is dramatically different from youth and the middle years, and which society does not generally acknowledge, is the courage it requires to be old.
When dying becomes up close and personal, each old person, mostly in quiet times when we are alone, must bravely stand up to all that DNA self-preservation juice and make peace with, in time, letting go of life.
We must do that while keeping the prime directive - living our best possible old age. As Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times in 1990:
”If we face the reality, at 63 or 70, 75, 80, or 90, that we will indeed, sooner or later, die, then the only big question is how are we going to live the years we have left, however many or few they may be?
“What adventures can we now set out on to make sure we'll be alive when we die?”
I love that part: “...make sure we'll be alive when we die.” Lin Yutang said something similar in his book, The Importance of Living back in 1937:
”If man were to live this life like a poem he would be able to look upon the sunset of life as his happiest period, and instead of trying to postpone the much feared old age, be able to look forward to it, and gradually build up to it as the best and happiest period of his existence.”
I've been collecting quotations on old age and dying for 20 years and I could copy out dozens of inspiring thoughts for us all day. But I want to get back to the idea of courage.
As en-courage-ing as all the quotations of these wise people are, what many leave out is the loss, the pain - and the fear, too - that accompanies our journey in the final years.
Surveys repeatedly show that the most common regret of old people is not what they have done in their lives but what they have left undone – from travel to not telling someone how much they were loved. We live with those sorrows, especially the ones where we have failed others.
For some, there is physical pain that is often chronic and untreatable. Elders are mostly stoic about it, rarely mentioning how difficult it makes their lives.
The cumulative loss of loved ones and the different sorts of holes that creates in our lives. When my mother died, I remember feeling bereft that no one living now had known me when I was a child. I still haven't worked out, 25 years later, why that leaves an empty spot and still does.
And then, the fear of approaching death when we can no longer pretend it is far away. Like I said, it takes a lot of courage to get through old age and I am surprised how little this is noticed – by others maybe understandably but by elders themselves particularly.
Over these years of thinking about the meaning of old age, I have come to believe that it is part of our job in these last years to cultivate acceptance of the ending of our days and to weave the work of accomplishing that into the structure of our daily lives.
It does take work. You can't just decide one day that you are are comfortable with dying and be done with it. Particularly when, for me, I have never felt as closely connected to life and living, so attached to the shifts in light and weather and the changing seasons of our world as I do now.
Without any effort on our part, death will find us when it is time. But I want more. I seek to stop running from death and to make peace with it as the proper outcome of life.
My greatest encouragement and comfort in that so far is astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson's “We are all stardust” speech:
“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago," he said.
“For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”
I'm not there yet but that knowledge gets me a whole lot closer to understanding death as the good and proper outcome of life.