Life Is a River

Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer, essayist (annoying all-rounder), wrote – at a sprightly 81 years old – a famous article entitled, “How to Grow Old”.  He himself was to grow much older, but he can’t have known, when he was writing it, that he would live to the ripe old age of 97.  On the subject of ageing, therefore, he has the credentials to be listened to.  Besides the essay saying many interesting things about growing old and being lyrically beautiful to read, I think it speaks more generally and that many of the things he says can apply to growing older in any decade of one’s life.

His opening advice is something that is out of all of our hands: that one ought to “choose [ones] ancestors carefully”.  Would that we had the choice.  Clearly though, Russell was from stock as tenacious as super-glued skittles, standing firm in the face of whatever was bowled at them.  All of his grandparents (bar one) lived into their eighties.  The other thing about him – and this he didn’t advocate for in his essay – was that he had no fear of marriage.  He had four wives, divorcing all but the last, by which stage he may simply have been too tired to deal with the paperwork it entailed.  These four marriages aren’t mentioned as part of what he calls the “recipe for remaining young”, rather, the most important ingredient is, he says, interests.  Keeping oneself young and occupied through interests is not such a radical idea, except Russell is quite clear that these interests should be one’s own. (Q: And who else’s would they be? A: You’d be surprised.)  Children and grandchildren, he points out, require you to take less interest in them as they grow older.  I read this piece over, as it sounded quite selfish to my conditioned mind.  But he quickly qualified it, saying, “I do not mean that one should be without interest in them [children/grandchildren], but one’s interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic, but not unduly emotional.”  Ok, so it’s the ‘take a step back’ approach, which (she mutters from the wings in sniping tones) is probably an easier position to adopt when you have a band of ex-wives taking all of the practical and emotional interest in your offspring leaving you free to write essays in your study.

That is unduly negative cheap swipe from me, though, for I believe what he writes is uplifting and positive and that there is something quietly revolutionary about saying that it is more than acceptable to put ourselves at the centre of our world as we grow older – not in a needing, grasping way, but from a ‘I know what I like and what pleases me’ place of self-knowledge.

The essay culminates in a gorgeous paragraph where his writing moves from the practical to the almost mystical.  To me, he presents us with a paradox, the beauty of which I want to believe in: that from a place of pursuing one’s own interests, the scope and world view becomes larger and expansive and unified.  Life is a river, float on.

“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.”

(How to Grow Old, by Bertrand Russell)

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