Some thoughts on old age and facing the inevitable, from Charles Handy
I woke up this morning to a rainy but intermittently sunny day. Nothing unusual about that you may say. Except that for me it was, because I was supposed to be dead. When I recovered from my stroke three years ago, they told me it was highly probable I would suffer another stroke, this time fatal, within two years. So to wake up in the morning and open my eyes and realise I was alive was a great surprise, and I think with relief. “Not ready yet.”
So here I am, statistically dead. The same may soon be true of many of you. At any rate, some of you will be, as I am, old. I’m now 88, and though disabled because of the stroke, I’m otherwise raring to go and enjoying life – probably too much.
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, as the Bible puts it, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate and reflect on my life. And on the whole, I’m well satisfied. There are things I could have done that I didn’t, but only a few things I did that I shouldn’t have – for which I have made my apologies to the people concerned and forgiven myself for my mistakes.
Although my work – writing books – was moderately successful, what I’m most proud of is my family. My son and my daughter, who despite a woeful lack of good parenting, have somehow emerged as very nice, decent people: kind, interesting, fun to be with, good at their jobs and amazing in their ability to take care of me as an extra child. I’m very proud of them and very grateful, and I regard this as my greatest success in life, even though I had little to do with it. It was my late wife who dominated as a matriarch, who built four fabulous family homes, organised my life and would have liked to organise theirs if they’d been a bit older.
Anyway, there we are, a life much enjoyed, probably too well lived in some respects. And now, how fortunate I am to have been given these few months at the end of it, to walk that valley and linger a while with the memories of what was but no longer can be.
And looking at the statistics it seems that, as the decades pass, there will be more and more old people around. Will that be good or bad, I wonder. I’d like to think it will be good, but looking at myself as an old man, I’m not so sure. I’m still very cantankerous, but now I use old age as the authority for my views, as my right to trample on the evidence of views that don’t agree with mine. What will the next century be like? Full of cantankerous old folk like me, or more quiet, more peaceful? More book clubs or raves? More old ladies riding bicycles upright and slow as the Dutch do, or crouched-down and speedy. The answer, I believe, is quieter, slower and, I’m afraid, a bit duller. So I have ideas these days, but I don’t have the physical energy to do anything about them. And therefore they linger, undone in my mind. We need young people to make things change and old people to let them change. I hope I’ll be more tolerant than I have been lately.
So as you enter that valley of the shadow of death, may I pass on to you my Irish blessing, which I love. It goes like this:
Wherever the journey of life may take you,
May the road rise up to meet you as you go,
And the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall soft on your fields.
And until we meet again, sometime, somehow, somewhere,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand and keep you safe.
And so farewell, enjoy what’s left of life, don’t leave it all too late.
Until we meet again,