What makes a good life?
Turning 60 is something many people dread. The popular view is that it is the beginning of the end, but for me it turned out to be a most blessed experience.
During the past week, it was my turn to face the big Six Love. This happened on Wednesday 24 February, and consisted of the biggest celebration of life I have ever experienced. The festivities carried on for four days, mostly because it was impossible to accommodate all the people that wanted to see me or speak to me and wish me well, in one single day or at a single event. This is where the blessings of family and friendship were once again confirmed in a vivid, almost in-your-face way. It was just so overwhelming to be showered with kindness, appreciation and genuine, sincere love.
Perhaps the biggest irony was that on the very same day that the big transition in life happened for me, I also had to say farewell to my brother who had passed away recently. The day became an emotional big dipper as I vacillated between elation and sorrow, but in the end it was amazing.
The reason for choosing my birthday as the date for my brother’s consolation service, is because we share the same birth date, but not the same age. The fact that our sister was also born on this day, makes it even more special. For the past 55 years, since my sister was born, we always celebrated what is known in our family as the “impossible triplet.” So you can imagine what impact it had on both she and I, that we had this wonderful opportunity to remember our brother’s life on the very day that we would have celebrated another year of the impossible triplet.
This is just bye the bye, somehow very personal and private, but in a definitive sense, part of who I am and the life that has brought me to this point.
Big events like this always tend to bring out the philosopher in me. To understand this facet of my personality, one has to remember that I am not just an armchair philosopher who likes to talk nonsense at braais, no, I am actually an “educated” philosopher, if an occupation like that is at all possible. Part of my formal education includes graduate and post-graduate qualifications in philosophy.
When confronted with life and death on the same day, most people tend to fall back on clichés and platitudes. “Life is like that” or “such is life” or “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh” is the typical response that usually follows one of the inexplicable happenings in a life. But there is nothing ordinary or mundane about these events, they happen to us all and we all have to find ways of coping with the immediate as well as the extended impact.
Approaching 60 was not something I took in my stride, it is far too important an age milestone to just let it go by unnoticed. Fortunately, this view is shared by my entire family and I was at some stage flabbergasted by the amount of attention and goodwill I received. And at the end of that day when I had to conduct my brother’s funeral, it was again reinforced by everybody present: He would not have wanted us to sulk over him, but rather rejoice in the full life he also had.
But what exactly is 60? This is not an easy question and there are no quick or glib answers.
On paper, it is when you reach retirement age, but existentially, it is far more. You only need to retire if your company’s HR policy requires it but that only means transitioning from one phase to another. It is also the age where you can apply for a state pension, where you can push in at the front of the queue without any silly remarks, and where you get all sorts of wonderful discounts on everything from your telephone account to a trip overseas.
In your own body you know it in the biological changes that have taken and are taking place, but neither do these relegate one to the backseat. To a large extent, it is what you make of it (another platitude) and this is true. “It is all in the mind” (one more platitude) may be an apt way of describing this age, but alas, this also is true. And I have found that a topping of grey hair gets you out of trouble and out of many impossible situations.
Inevitably, at this point in life, one tends to reminisce too much. This became all too clear at the small celebration my staff had for me at the office. I think what impressed them most is that a whisker over half of my life to date was dedicated to the Economist.
I think at the end, the only sensible observation is that it is inevitably, indelibly, part of me, the person who I have become and who I am in essence. It is a wonderful age. When you reach 60, you are comfortable in your skin and in your mind. You know a lot. You have experienced a lot. You are highly regarded for your intellectual and academic contribution, and perhaps most important, your opinion is sought and trusted by younger (and often older) people, provided you keep the proverbial watch over what comes out of your mouth.
For any person who is still wondering how to deal with the retirement age, my sage advice is “ Go for it”, it is a wonderful time in one’s life. It is my intention, for the next ten years, not to try and be a role model for young people but instead, a solid, reliable, dependable role model for older people.
Portrait photograph by Theunis Duvenhage of Lidchi Photography.