I just celebrated my 75th birthday. Does this mean I’m finally old? I don’t feel old. I’m in good health, I’m active, I’m still intent on pursuing my established career as an author. My memory for words and numbers seems as nimble as ever. For the last ten years the topic of aging has been my specialty as a writer, so with every year that passes I am more of a living embodiment of what I write about. Many of the readers of my aging books are now younger than I am; they look to my books to help them understand what is in store for them.
Nevertheless, I’m acutely aware that my father died at 75, and that my friends who have died were often younger than myself. So 75 sounds still sounds old to me, notwithstanding the fact that many prominent and productive citizens are my age or older. One thing I do seem to be doing more of is reminiscing. This can be a positive thing, to review the life you have lived and aspire to put what you have done into the context of a long view. I write about these positive aspects of reminiscence in my latest book Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity. And in reminiscing I notice that more and more where my mind seems to go are the various close calls I have had in my life—incidents that, if they had gone the other way, could have been disastrous.
For example, when I was a graduate student in Berkeley, Ca., I was driving my VW bug in town and had just pulled away from a stop sign when a guy on a motorcycle suddenly zoomed in front of me from the right. I slammed on the brakes. His kickstand clicked against my front bumper as we lightly collided; he wobbled a bit, righted himself, and zoomed off. One inch closer and he would have been on the ground under his bike, perhaps seriously injured or even dead. I can’t remember whose fault this near-accident was; it might have been mine, if I had the stop sign and he didn’t. We were both lucky, we both escaped unscathed. Had it gone the other way who knows in what drastic way my life (and his) might have changed. That’s what I mean by a close call.
Here’s another example. During the Vietnam War I was an anti-war activist. I also filed with my draft board as a conscientious objector. By the time my draft board finally took up my case, I was living full-time in a Buddhist retreat center, studying to be a Zen priest. I traveled back to my hometown to meet with my draft board and plead my case, telling them that I was now a Buddhist and a pacifist, explaining that my Zen tradition had its roots in Japan. One of the board members said, “I fought in the Pacific against the Japanese. It was brutal. I can tell you that none of them were pacifists, no way. What are trying to tell us?”
I nervously replied that the Japanese seemed to have gone against their Buddhist religion’s pacifist principles in going to war.
Somehow, that answer seemed to satisfy the board. Or at least they thought I was a sincere, if misguided, young man. But suppose their decision had gone the other way. Would I have been then drafted and sent to Vietnam? Or if I resisted that, would I have been sent to Federal prison? Some of my anti-war friends did go to prison. A close call.
You can’t live to be my age without close calls. Even much younger people have their share of close calls, though they may not think about them as such. The world at large has had close calls too, big ones. A few decades back a Russian colonel noticed on radar what seemed to be a number of missiles coming from the direction of America. He had only a minute or two to decide whether to notify the Russian command of what seemed to be a sudden nuclear attack. He paused and tuned in to his intuition and experience as a military man. On reflection, a sudden attack didn’t seem plausible to him. He waited another minute, then checked again. It turned out to be a flock of geese.
This is a well-known case of a nuclear near miss, and there have been others. This is the world we live in. Most of the time our lives seem ordinary, even routine, as the days and weeks pass. But if you look back with a certain kind of alertness, what comes into view are these forks in the road, the times you went left rather than right, the chance meetings that went well or went wrong, the times you decided to quit a job or not quit it, the person you married or didn’t. From this perspective life itself is a series of close calls, lucky breaks, second chances or missed opportunities. No wonder the ancients attributed such things to the capriciousness of the gods. The way life goes, ultimately, is beyond our human ken.
We all live, I think, in a continuous sea of mystery, and whether we sink or swim is up to the choices we make, the kind of person we are, and the principles we believe in—along with the intervention of fate. We do our best; sometimes that is enough, and sometimes it isn’t. If you are lucky enough to reach my age of 75—or if you are even older—I think you know this. And if you are still decades younger, in the buoyant energy and prime of your life, when the close calls come, as they inevitably will, give thanks if things break your way.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you cain’t help it if you’re lucky.