Thirty-five people crammed into our house which is barely able to contain such a large group, it’s Easter. Their ages range from 3 to 85. All are kin by blood or marriage, or same as kin by friendship. Many laughs, hugs, stories and memories are shared by this typical southern family. But as caring as they are of one another, individualism flourishes. It flourishes because of the natural differences that so easily pop up on issues such as religion and politics when four generations gather in one place.
Age differences alone produce separation of thoughts. The eyes of a typical 40-something see life as a different color than the eyes of typical 70-something. But, so many folks just aren’t typical, and that messes up everything. Education may play some minor role, not so much the amount of formal education as the kind of education. Many of the smartest people I’ve known were self-educated. Some folks are just very curious and never find a simple answer that is satisfying and continue searching and may never be satisfied with the “too” obvious explanations. Of course a lot of folks quickly find where their thinking and their views fit into life, and comfortably stay there. Neither approach is incorrect; it’s just the nature of being individual.
Looking out my windows on these unusually cool spring days I can see many new leaves sprouting on the naked limbs of oaks and maples. But look at those beech trees, they still have last year’s leaves clinging to limbs until the very last minute. These leaves just hang on and on waiting to get kicked off by this year’s new growth. This cycle of life, the hanging on until the bitter end reminds me of some humans. I look at my own cycle of living; I was the son, then a brother, then a father, an uncle, a grandfather and now a great-uncle and great-grandfather.
And some day, perhaps I will be taken care of by those children that I was once responsible for caring for, the natural reversal of roles. Many things change, and the rate of change accelerates. We give up position, power, freedom not because we choose, but by the adding up of years, and limitations, both physical and sometimes cognitive. Things change and it becomes less important to us to always be on top of everything, to totally understand the new technologies. And if we’re smart, we recognize that no one, not even the techno-geeks can keep up with everything all the time. If we’re wise, we begin to prioritize. We look at our long past, and shorter future and decide what we want our time, that most precious commodity of them all, to be used up by.
But I have a theory about those people that act like the beech trees, you know the ones that keep hanging on and on well into their 80s, even their 90s. Yes, of course some of it is luck, they don’t fall victim and succumb to major diseases. But I believe there is something else. No I’m not going to tell you it’s exercise and proper diet — though I do believe exercise and good diet increase your odds of becoming an octogenarian or even a nonagenarian. My personal theory is too simple to be believable, but I’ll give it to you, you do with it what you wish. Here it is.
Longevity is greatly enhanced by curiosity, a portion of curiosity that is too big to be lived out five or six decades; curiosity that requires at least seven, eight, or even nine decades to satisfy. Develop a curiosity so enormous that it sits on the very edge of being unhealthy. Become curious to new facts, new things and places; what were those things you wish you knew, or places you wanted to learn about when you were too busy raising a family, or performing your job? It doesn’t take a lot of money, it just needs time to go to the library, or book store, or look on line. Learning new things does not deplete your energy reserves, it adds energy. Getting that satisfying feeling of accomplishment of understanding a new thing; it is addicting. You’ll want to learn more and more, and like leaves on beech trees, you’ll hang on and on and on.
Whether it’s new tech toys, new books, a new career or new volunteer projects, or even new geographic territory; people with an “almost” unhealthy curiosity are too busy to mess around with getting old. They’re too busy reading about places or things they don’t know about. Or, they are too busy volunteering for a cause they really believe in, and reaping the colossal feelings that come with helping others that need attention from a caring soul. Or, they’re taking food to the “real” elderly people that cannot drive. You’ll see these people in book stores. I met a guy recently in his nineties; he was in Barnes and Nobles looking for the right book to read. There is a volunteer where I volunteer that is 16 years my senior, and I’m mid-70s.
These nonagenarians are not maple people, not oak people, they are beech people. They just keep hanging on and on, way after all the oak and maple people have dropped off the tree, they’re still exercising the curious muscles, they don’t let go. They are getting involved in things outside themselves, outside their own lives, by helping others. Or they’re trying new things, reading about distant places, some are even looking at Jupiter half a billion miles away with the local astronomical club. These overly curious people don’t have time to mess around with thinking about, or acting old.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.