Blessings of age
January 14, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoI had lunch last week with Jack Frishman, a retired doctor who moved to Aspen more than 50 years ago. Jack is celebrating his 91st birthday this week. I use the word “celebrating” because Jack sees no reason to bemoan adding another year to a life that remains vital and energized. What strikes me about Jack is he remains a fully cognizant human being, able to tell the tales of his early youth in California and recount details from every phase of his adult life, from serving in a MASH unit during World War II to teaching skiing at Aspen Highlands in the ’60s. All told, it is fascinating to experience the life of a man born in 1916.Not everyone can expect the longevity Jack enjoys. But the fact that he enjoys his advanced years shows Jack is very fortunate. He has a positive attitude and has taken good care of himself. Jack is still a skier, which says a lot for his physical vibrancy and undeniable youthfulness.After our lunch together, I thought a lot about aging, wondering why so many people find getting old terrifying. It’s not to Jack, who imbues me with hope for those oft-dreaded “golden years” that are usually equated with a declining life experience.The stigma that surrounds aging comes from fear of a physical and mental collapse, which is natural. Perhaps the most difficult hurdle in aging for many of us comes from living in or near Aspen, where youth and beauty are part of the mystique.For perspective, I read an essay by the Roman philosopher Cicero, who 2,000 years ago sang the praises of old age. Rather than crying “poor old me,” Cicero maintains there are benefits to being old that far surpass the detriments. When you consider the alternative to aging, Cicero’s point is well taken.First, he debunks the notion that “age withdraws us from active employments,” listing venerable Roman consuls, senators and philosophers to prove his point. I’ll give just one contemporary, local example: Klaus Obermeyer. If anyone thinks aging means the end of energy, productivity and joie de vivre, Klaus is proof against it.Second, Cicero refutes “age enfeebles the body.” He insists a man weakened by age can still have an active life. “You should use what you have, and whatever it is you do, do it with all your might!”Aging should be viewed as if it were an illness, suggests Cicero, fought every step of the way with unfailing will and spirit. He reasons that with moderate exercise and a healthy diet the vigor of the body and the vitality of the mind can be preserved throughout old age. I think Cicero was a bit like Jack Frishman.The third challenge of age is a “decline in sensual pleasures.” For this Cicero offers no cure, but rather grateful acceptance. He claims desire for sensual pleasure is “the greatest blot of youth,” inhibiting discipline and encouraging dangerous passions. “There is no crime, no evil deed to which the appetite for sensual pleasures does not impel us.” Man is freer when he abandons licentious passions, Cicero says, more attuned to the riches of conversation, philosophy, art, and intellectual endeavors, which surpass the sensual as sustainable pursuits throughout a fulfilling lifetime. The final blight of old age is the “nearness of death,” which Cicero writes off to earthly attachments and denial of the limits of life. “What a poor dotard must he be who has not learnt in the course of so long a life that death is not a thing to be feared?” But most of us do fear it, even though with death comes the freeing of the soul, the final release from earthly concerns, a spiritual return to the “universal divine intelligence.” Facing death, Cicero says, “I seem to be sighting land and coming to port, at last, after a long voyage.” Happy birthday, Jack Frishman! You’ve given me good reason to look forward to my own. Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.