To contemplate the late stage of one’s career may seem as inviting as a root canal. What’s there to look forward to but pain, weakness, irrelevance, and decrepitude? Meanwhile, the culture bastes us relentlessly with images of youthful prosperity and vigor. “Forever young” has become the mantra of success. So it’s no wonder that we feel resistance to elderhood from both without and within.
Recently, the New York Times Magazine reported an informal poll that asked subscribers, “If offered the chance to live for 200 years in a youthful body, would you accept?” The results were intriguing: about a third said yes, a third said no, and a third said they would have to think about it. I wondered what would make someone choose one or the other, so I began to ask around. My mother, who just turned 100, said she would certainly not want to live that long, and at 70 I felt the same way myself, no question; so did my oldest friend from grad school, whom I have always considered exceptionally wise. My daughter, at 29, initially said yes but then demurred, reflecting that she did not want to be alive when America and the planet went down in flames. At a party where most of the guests were seniors, people expressed mixed, shifting opinions. Two stylish young attorneys said they had no doubt that living 200 years in a 28-year old body would be great; a middle-aged carpenter said he would have to think about it; a barber in his 70’s said he had had a good life and would welcome whatever came next, although he was not enjoying the slow creep of infirmity; a retired college president, active in foundation work despite a recent heart attack, said it was an attractive idea. A university librarian, nearing retirement, said no way.
I left the party with more light but less clarity. Apparently, the question reveals more about the individual than about the population at large. And, on reflection, it’s purely academic. We know that every species has an allotted span: if you want to live, you have to die; you have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself. But we can still dream, and what does our dream of being forever young have to teach? What can we learn from such an imaginary journey?
I had asked the attorneys what they thought it would be like to have a young person’s body but an old person’s mind or, conversely, what it would feel like to date someone who looked young but felt old. When would they start to feel the disconnect? When would it give them the creeps? I couldn’t shake their confidence that living two centuries in a young body would be enviable and fulfilling. Of course, right now they were doing great both socially and professionally. Why wouldn’t they just want more of the same?
And, to be fair, think of what culture serves up as role models for elderhood: silver-haired executives flaunting their sportscars and trophy wives, movie stars freezing their glamor with make-up, personal trainers, and plastic surgery, tycoons still chasing billion-dollar deals, bemedaled generals in palaces or gray-haired dictators in guerilla fatigues. We’re encouraged to believe that a successful life means reaching the top of your game and staying there forever. As if success really could work as a hedge against death.
But life and literature both offer alternative models along with abundant cautionary tales…