How to Grow Old – Wisdom from Bertrand Russell

By Shlomo Maital   

Bertrand Russell

    Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate (for literature).  He was a pacifist, and went to jail for his beliefs.  He lived a long and productive life, to the age of 97.

     By chance, I stumbled on his essay, “How to Grow Old”,  in an anthology, on the bookshelves of our son-in-law.  His advice is very wise.  And it contains a lovely metaphor – treat your life as a river, let it gradually widen from narrow banks into a great broad Mississippi, with broad interests and the goal of remaining relevant, and helping others. 

     Here are his words —  232 of them. 

  “Some old people are troubled by the fear of death.  In the young there is a justification for this feeling.  Young men who have reason to fear that they will be killed in battle may justifiably feel bitter in the thought that they have been cheated of the best things that life has to offer.  But in an old man who has known human joys and sorrows, and has done whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat ignoble. The best way to overcome it – so at least it seems to me – 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 part of 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, th banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become part of the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.  The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of eath, since the things he cares for will continue.  And if, with the loss of vitality, weariness increases the thoughts of rest will not be unwelcome.”