Our Town: The third-quarter life crisis

Our Town: The third-quarter life crisis

Large amounts of capital are put into medical research to help us live longer and this has improved life expectancy rates. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is unlikely that we will find a drug that will allow us to live forever. No matter how many doctors we befriend, not how many pills we take, the Grim Reaper must eventually be faced.

Welcome to the three-quarter life crisis.

Whether you happen to be 55, 65, 75 or 85, you’re in a stage of life that is filled with many unpleasant physical and psychological surprises. First thing you may notice is that it’s hard to lose weight. You see more wrinkles; your skin seems to sag and itch more in the wintertime. Your golf handicap keeps rising. You wake up in the morning with fatigue and you can’t recall a time when you actually slept through the night, without waking. You suddenly find that you feel wobbly as you walk down the street. You begin to gaze at youngsters in wonder and envy as they fearlessly run and romp about.

But the grim details do not end there. You may still feel like having sex but realize that you in no way are able to perform as you once did. And there is little solace in the realization that no one is attracted to you anyway. You have now become invisible to the opposite sex.
Physical decline pales in importance, however, when you begin to recognize that you now must face the awareness that death is inevitable.

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for writing “The Denial of Death,” which was about how humans try to deny the inevitability of death through heroics sacrifice in the form of sports, war, altruism, money making etcetera.

Freud also discussed this issue and coined the phrase “death wish” as the counterbalance to our life wish. Needless to say, Becker’s as well as Freud’s views failed to gain much of an audience since the subject is so unsettling. And novelists don’t seem to do much better. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story called “Winter Dreams” is his brilliant homage to lost youth but by the end of the story we are left with nothing more than memories of passion. In his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” William Butler Yeats reminded us that “an aged man is but a paltry thing.”

Aging sets up this ultimate quandary as we become increasingly aware of our mortality and enter into an effort to solve this unsolvable problem. Some religions dealt with this by talking about reincarnation. But what if you get reincarnated into a beggar, a gnat or a mouse? If you’re a Christian, you may find solace in the hope that your stay in purgatory will not be too long, but what if purgatory lasts for 75 years? And the fires are just as hot in purgatory as they are in hell.

But we live in secular times and as far back as 1882 Nietzsche pronounced “God is dead,” so where does that leave us? Well, some men handle their fear of dying by buying a Lamborghini, drinking or purchasing a new wife. Some get Botox or tummy tucks. These are all valiant efforts and do forestall the crisis for a brief time. But the grim reaper keeps on coming.

No one has come up with much helpful guidance as we try to navigate the last quarter of our life. But take heart because I have given this little problem some thought and here are the four best guideposts and points of solace I can offer you on your merry jaunt through this final phase of life:

1) You and your body will slow down as you age and this may be an opportunity to pause and enjoy the spectacle that is life as it passes by each day. In the immortal words of Maurice Chevalier in the musical “Gigi,” “How lovely to sit here in the shade, with none of the woes of man or maid, I’m glad I’m not young anymore.”

2) Generally speaking, one of the benefits of age is that you have finally accumulated money so one does not have to worry too much about cash. The kids are grown and out of the house and the mortgage is almost paid off. That Social Security check keeps coming in each month and we even receive a variety of Senior Citizen discounts.

3) The young may have the confidence of youth. but as you get older you acquire wisdom. Yeats said “this is no country for old men” but experience and knowledge get consolidated into simple and profound wisdom. The abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning is a good example. The work he did in his 70s and 80s was far more beautiful and lyrical than his early work.

4) Aging means you have stories to tell. When I was a kid, I had no stories to tell since I had not done anything, seen anything, or met anyone of importance. But as my career grew and my travel started, I began to experience many things. As an example, when I was about 40, I traveled to Venice and stayed in the Cipriani Hotel. Granted it wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it.

The first morning when we awoke I opened the window and was made dizzy with the fragrance of the gardens below. I looked out over Venice to see St Marks Cathedral and heard its bells chiming. As we walked down the hallway to breakfast there were vases filled with roses, and marble statues every way and the beauty of the place was enough to make you weep. We went down to the pool later in the morning and there I saw so many beautiful Italian women lounging around the pool sunbathing without tops on. Welcome to the European upper classes.

We met a nice young American couple at poolside and as we ordered lunch with them the girl ordered a tuna fish sandwich with tomato on white toast, which cost her $28, and as she turned around a seagull flew down, picked up the sandwich and flew off with it. Now isn’t that a good story.

The older you get the more stories you can tell and so before a seagull flies down and takes you to heaven, just remember to slow down, enjoy the spectacle that is life, spend some of your money, and go forth and have a few more interesting experiences. That may mean starting a new business, taking a trip to Yosemite Park or finally taking those painting lessons you’ve put off your whole life.

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