Life Begins at Seventy
SEPTEMBER 01, 1968 by LEONARD E. READ
Popular expression has it that "life begins at forty," thirty years ahead of my suggested figure. But life really begins each moment one grows in awareness, perception, consciousness; that is, the budding process is a continuous beginning. The moons that have come and gone do not necessarily measure growth or its ending; now and then life flags in the teens; on occasion it accelerates in the nineties. If seventy seems less likely than forty for a new beginning, the reason is that so many have died on the vine in that interval.
Glory to the man who can truthfully attest, "Life begins at ninety!"
Twenty years ago — at the age of fifty — I discovered this: "The normal human brain always contains a greater store of neuroblasts than can possibly develop into neurons during the span of life, and the potentialities of the human cortex are never fully realized. There is a surplus and, depending upon physical factors, education, environment, and conscious effort, more or less of the initial store of neuroblasts will develop into mature, functioning neurons. The development of the more plastic and newer tissue of the brain depends to a large extent upon the conscious efforts made by the individual. There is every reason to assume that development of cortical functions is promoted by mental activity and that continued mental activity is an important factor in the retention of cortical plasticity into late life. Goethe… [and others] are among the numerous examples of men whose creative mental activities extended into the years associated with physical decline…. There also seem sufficient grounds for the assumption that habitual disuse of these highest centers results in atrophy or at least brings about a certain mental decline."¹
And now, on rereading Ortega, I find: "As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men — and of women — are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalized, so to speak, in our experience. These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving, an incessant course of training."’
Enter into Life
There is more to the observation of these two scholars — a biochemist and a philosopher — than first meets the eye. A worthy ambition, they quite correctly imply, is "to die with your boots on" or "go down with your colors flying." For what other reason are we here than to get ever deeper into life?
And if there be any certain key to personal happiness, it involves the use and development of the faculties — the expanding mind being the most important and, by and large, all that remains for the elder citizen.
But there is another reason for looking so favorably on those who insist on "a perpetual striving, an incessant course of training": Each of us has a vested interest in these "select men, the nobles."3
We can live our own lives to the fullest only insofar as they dwell among us. The society in which we live — the environment — is conditioned by the absence or presence of those who persistently pursue excellence. The rise and fall of society depends upon this kind of nobility. These "select men" are essential to us, and striving to be numbered among them is a worthy aspiration.
Yet, many persons lack such aspiration. Analogous is the tree with every appearance of health, its blossoms beautiful to behold, fruit developing normally toward full size. But, alas, before it ripens, the fruit falls to the ground — big and well-shaped, but useless!
We witness so many promising individuals falling by the wayside, stepping away from life, forsaking the effort essential to life’s full cycle, just when the process of maturing is to begin! In a word, the fruit of life abandoned!
To associate old age with mature judgment is indeed a mistake, simply because, as Ortega suggests, too many elders react only to external compulsion. The inner development that is prerequisite to maturity tends to terminate too soon. Old age, more often than not, can be associated with senility. Yet, the greater the age, the richer the maturity, assuming, of course, that the budding process is alive and functioning. In these rare cases, old age and mature judgment go hand-in-hand; the older the wiser!
If I am not mistaken, freedom is to be expected only in societies distinguished by a significant number of mature and wise men. And maturity and wisdom of the quality required is reserved to those who can retain the budding phenomenon — cortical plasticity —into those years normally associated with physical decline, that is, into the period when maturing of the intellect becomes at least a possibility.4 In any event, I am certain that the type of maturity here in question will never issue among those who, for whatever reason, permit themselves to "die on the vine." Thus, it is of the utmost importance that we reflect on the obstacles to maturity. If they can be identified, we can, hopefully, reduce them.
The Urge to Quit
The most formidable obstacle on the way to maturity is covered by the idea of retirement! Two forces move us toward retirement, namely, temptation and compulsion.
Many are congenitally lazy, if not physically, at least mentally. Their mental activities have stagnated, leaving them uninteresting even to themselves, let alone to others; they cannot stand their own company or abide being alone with their thoughts. They seek merriment and diversion supplied by others, like a man walking down the street with a radio glued to his ear. Any excuse, however flimsy, to avoid thinking for self! Such persons have no fruit to ripen, no mental activity to mature.
There are others who have had no thought since early adulthood but to "get it made." By the time that goal is achieved, abstract thought has been too long neglected for reactivation or renewal; half-hearted attempts prove unrewarding, so the temptation is to forswear any conscious effort. Mature thoughts are out of the question.
Ever so many persons of high potential look to a vocation for fame or fortune and forget to choose one in harmony with their unique capabilities. As a consequence, the job is likely to be boring; holidays and vacations — little retirements — are highlights of the seasons; and as the years pass, full retirement seems more and more attractive. There is no incentive to extend mental activity to its maturity.
The thought of retirement is anathema to me. I have not experienced any of the temptations and, thus, can list only a few of the more obvious examples. But it seems clear that there would be little drive for compulsory retirement if retirement were not a common goal. It seems to add up to this: Let’s formalize and legalize that which the vast majority so ardently favor! The following examples of compulsive forces stem from these common temptations.
Retirement, of course, is a relative term. The shortened work week, enforced by edict, is a case in point. One must retire, not work beyond the legal forty hours, or the employer will be forced to pay a higher hourly rate, in effect, a fine.
Legal holidays seem never to be abandoned even after the cause they were meant to celebrate has been forgotten. Instead, there are countless excuses for increasing their number. Minor retirements en masse!
Social security payments are withheld from senior citizens who elect to work and earn. Activity is penalized; inactivity is rewarded.
Governmental unemployment payments often exceed what some persons could earn by working, thus inducing retirement.
Most corporations, educational and religious institutions, chambers of commerce, trade associations, and other organizations compel retirement at 65; many make it attractive to retire at 60; and we hear more and more of retiring at 55. The sole criterion is the number of moons that have come and gone; whether the budding process is dead, or at its very peak, is not even considered. As a consequence of this indiscriminate, rule-of-thumb procedure, many of the nation’s best men are "put out to pasture."
These illustrations suffice to emphasize the retirement syndrome. It is, today, the common fetish and the end is not in sight. Under these circumstances, it is remarkable that even a few individuals are capable of spontaneous and joyous effort, that is, are able to experience the maturing period. No wonder that the perceptive Ortega observed such individuals to "stand out isolated, monumentalized"!
In one sense, it is lamentable that those who have advanced in wisdom and maturity should "stand out isolated, monumentalized." Far better if there were more such persons — the few less conspicuous than they are. Not everyone will make it, of course, but maturity surely is within the reach of thousands at the modest price of conscious, persistent, dedicated, prayerful effort. The reward for realizing one’s potentialities, whatever they are, may be the highest earthly life has to confer.
That my life still begins with each moment can be assigned in part to a stroke of good fortune —vocation and avocation are identical; work and pleasure are one and the same.
Beyond this, I have a first-rate retirement policy: short of effective compulsions to the contrary, I propose to ride my bicycle till I fall off!
4 Conceded, many a young person reaches a higher state of maturity than does the octogenarian. This is because some are born more highly endowed than others. However, my point is not aimed at such comparisons but, rather, at the need of maturity regardless of how high or low the endowments. Mankind loses most when those of high endowment fail to mature.
Accept the Challenge
It is men who have counted struggle as a blessing who got the big rewards of life. As Emerson said, "God keeps an honest account with men."
The hard surgical cases, where life hangs on a heart beat, do not go to the dilettante surgeon. The tough engineering problem, like building a bridge across a mighty river, does not go to the engineer who has always looked for the easy jobs. And the same for lawyers and top executives in business.
If at times you feel that you have not had the same chance that others have, ask yourself what chance did Abraham Lincoln have? Remember that "it is not so much the size of the dog in the fight that counts, but the size of the fight in the dog."
SAMUEL B. PETTENGILL