The Will To Continue

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“May I suggest that [human] potential for change and growth is much 

greater than we are willing to admit, and that old age… be regarded as

the age of opportunities for inner growth.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Recently I read Richard Siegel and Rabbi Laura Geller’s newly published book, Getting Good at Getting Older, with great interest. It’s an excellent resource, beautifully designed with pages filled with helpful ideas and information about different organizations. In addition to the easy-to-read text. It’s also peppered with humor and inspirational quotes. Its target audience, as Rabbi Geller acknowledges, is the boomer group, people now in their 60s (perhaps newly retired or considering retirement), and into the mid-seventies (for those who “boomed” earlier). 

What “Getting Good at Getting Older” does not cover, though, are those who got older some time ago, those in their late 70s, 80s, and 90s. Some of them apparently got really good at it because, if you follow your local obituaries, you’ll notice the growing number of people who have lived to pass the century mark.

In his gripping article, “A Secret Aging: How You Can Ward Off Death,” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that that even in the Middle Ages, Rabbi Ibn Ezra wrote about Moses and Aaron’s old age in a complimentary fashion. For Ibn Ezra, their advanced age as these leaders accomplished great deeds was a source of pride for B’nei Israel.

The Talmud tells us, as Rabbi Artson also mentions, that human destiny is to live to the age of three score and 10 [70 years], but that those who have “strength” can live to 80. Thus 80 years is defined as the age of strength in the Talmud, and Artson defines this strength primarily as wisdom. 

“The strength of 80 is the wisdom that comes from experience and completion. Having run much of the course of life, an adult of 80 years is finally able to look at the human condition with compassion and some skepticism. At 80, we no longer serve either passion or ambition.”

In my own experience, as I am approaching my mid-80s, what Rabbi Artson says is largely true, but there is more.  Granted there is the wisdom, understanding, compassion — and sense of history, I would add — that comes from having experienced the ups and downs of living a long time. But I disagree when it comes to people in their 80s no longer having the need to serve passion. In my view, it’s the passion that keeps you going! Otherwise you’re in danger of folding up your personal tent.

For me, the strength of living into one’s 80s, and, hopefully, beyond, comes from the will to continue. It comes from believing you still have something to contribute, both concretely and by passing on your wisdom and experience (and money, if it hasn’t run out and you still have some). If the younger generations are truly willing to listen and don’t discard what you have to offer as irrelevant today, maybe your assistance will help them to achieve their goals in a world that has changed exponentially, not only with every generation but with every decade now. As for the boomers, they have already learned that paradoxical truth, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).” 

My own four children, close together in age, are all tail-end (or almost tail-end) baby boomers. I believe with all my heart that they will continue to succeed, continue to grow as they get older, that they will be good at it. And when, God willing, they reach “the age of strength,” the age when Rabbi Artson says that younger people “can put off death by honoring the old among us,” I hope they, too, when the time comes, will have the will to continue — with passion — beyond honor, beyond past achievement. Perhaps they will also have learned that no matter how smart we humans are, no matter how much we are assisted by continually advancing artificial intelligence, none of us truly knows what the future holds. That’s God’s job.