Why you should care
Because successfully growing old takes more than just time.
It’s an age-old question — about the very act of getting old. And one of the best answers to the question of how best to grow old comes from the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell. At the age of 79, Russell, who died 50 years ago this February, sat down and penned a 1,000-word essay that is one of the most moving and insightful commentaries on achieving “a successful old age.” In “How to Grow Old,” Russell, also a mathematician, historian and Nobel laureate, turned his powerful mind toward comforting others — and himself — about the aging process. “In spite of the title,” the essay begins, “this article will really be on how not to grow old, which, at my time of life, is a much more important subject.”
Russell came from a distinguished pedigree: the son of a lord and the grandson of a prime minister. But both his parents died before he was 4, and the young aristocrat was raised by guardians. Russell himself would live to the age of 97, long enough to pen more than 4,000 publications and protest both World War I and the Vietnam War. A free thinker and an atheist, he wrote about everything from geometry to morality to politics, inveighing against everything from nuclear bombs to organized religion.
Russell was that rare bird: a genius who was also a public intellectual …
Russell was that rare bird: a genius who was also a public intellectual. This was actually partly a result of his pacifism, says Nicholas Griffin, a Scholar in Residence at the Bertrand Russell Archives: Russell was fired by Cambridge University for his opposition to the war (and also imprisoned for a time), which cost him his job, but “freed him from having to divide his time between public advocacy and routine academic work [and] forced him to write popular books and journalism in order to earn a living.”
In “How to Grow Old,” Russell draws from a lifetime as a public influencer to offer up some smart, but accessible insights on aging. His first tip is tongue-in-cheek: “Choose your ancestors carefully.” The often funny philosopher, who readily admitted he could not change a lightbulb, recognized that although his own parents had died young, he came from a long line of longtimers, many of whom had lived longer than 80 years — the exception being one who “died of a disease which is now rare, namely, having his head cut off.”
Putting aside the biological ability to grow old, Russell next argues that one of the best and most practical ways to remain young is to have something that came very easy to his own eclectic nature: a broad array of interests and hobbies. Keeping busy is not only a distraction from thinking “about the merely statistical fact of the number of years you have already lived” but also “the probable shortness of your future.” Russell, who subsisted almost entirely on soups, teas, scotches and other liquids in his final years because of an intestinal problem, also counsels against clinging to either one’s own youth or to the young themselves, arguing that it is best not to have an “undue absorption in the past” or to attempt “sucking the vigor from [the] vitality” of the young.
Perhaps Russell’s most eloquent and poetic advice comes when he addresses the fear of death. He writes:
“The best way to overcome it … is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being … ”
Russell may not have believed in any god, but he often preached, says Peter Stone, a political science professor at Trinity College Dublin and co-editor of Bertrand Russell, Public Intellectual, “a sense of oneness with both humanity and the universe as a whole.” And he also believed in the benefits to the individual — and to the community — of a generous and creative nature. “Russell stressed the need to cultivate the creative impulse,” says Stone, “not just for its own sake but as a means of creating a world in which more happiness was possible.”
Or, as an 87-year-old Russell succinctly puts it in the following 1958 interview with the BBC: “Love is wise. Hatred is foolish.” It doesn’t take a genius to realize that, but it certainly doesn’t hurt either.