On Growing Old

I LATELY gave a lecture at Harvard on growing old, explaining minutely how it is accomplished and tracing the steps through which I have passed in reaching a great age. But growing old is not confined to Harvard. We are all busied with it. Accordingly I here print what I there said, including even its personal and intimate details. It may all be summed up in a single warning precept. Old age is no bit of good luck. It comes only as the result of effort.

No doubt there are differences in natural endowment. Some of us are given at birth strong constitutions; others are frail. But such differences are of slight account. By middle life the strong man who has taken no pains will find himself burnt up, while a fragile person can gather vigor where all looks adverse. I speak from knowledge. Few have had a worse start than I. From my mother I inherited spinal disease; the spinal vertebræ do not interlock, and so I have never been able to stand up straight. My father gave me double hernia. I do not complain of these things. They have helped me to reach old age, showing early the job that was before me. I am now eighty-seven and in perfect health, only lame through my own folly. When thirty years ago I sprained my leg the doctor warned me to keep quiet for a considerable time. As after some weeks I felt little pain, I began to move about the room. Healing stopped and has never been resumed. Since then I have had only one leg to walk with. I hold therefore that we construct old age in precisely the same way as we build a barn. We merely need knowledge and persistent effort. Combined, they will carry us through anything. I have undergone six surgical operations and am now — except for a lameness induced by that early folly — in perfect health and enjoyment. To enable others to find a course which may be equally serviceable for themselves I here trace in detail six definite stages of my progress as relates to Food, Sleep, Exercise, Clothing, Moods, Religion.

1. I take no stimulant of any kind, no wine, beer, tobacco, coffee, or tea. A stimulant is a means of borrowing, and, small or large, must be paid for. Occasionally we are in a tight place and may wisely borrow. But such occasions are rare, and we enjoy life more the less we borrow. The adult heart can be kept like that of a child.

A particularly dangerous food is milk. We could not do without it, but man is the only creature that drinks it. The infant sucks it in mouthfuls from his mother’s breast. A little older, he takes his bread and milk a spoonful at a time. Only when he is old enough to know better does he pour down a glass of it at a gulp. Milk is a food, not a drink. It should be taken in sips. One might as properly pour the contents of the soup tureen down his throat as the contents of the milk pitcher.

White flour in all its forms should be avoided. Whatever is nutritious in the grain has been sifted out and thrown away. Whatever pleases the eye and tongue, even though injurious, is preserved. If one takes cold easily, the amount of salt had better be reduced. Beef, pork, and salt fish should not be eaten at all. Other varieties of meat are valuable and should be taken at least once each day. Do not bathe too often. Once a day rub yourself down with a rough towel and take a bath a couple of times a week.

The intake and outgo of food should be about equal in amount. In this matter persons differ widely. Some have a small appetite and therefore a small discharge. A strong appetite is better, if the food remains simple. Then three discharges are in order, and the amount is astonishing. At least one discharge is essential for everybody. It occurs best early in the morning. A mouthful of petrolatum oil, which contains no food, will harmlessly check constipation.

2.Many of us are troubled with sleepless nights, or rather we think we are. We lie awake watching ourselves, fearful that sleep may not come. Or we try to use the waking time for planning. Either habit is more exhausting than sleeplessness itself. I have never slept a night through in my life. I sleep an hour or two, then wake an hour or two. During the waking time I think of nothing serious. No harm comes. The method is simple. A good many hours may be spent in bed, where rest is had, whether sleep comes or not. I do not toss about. Only when after some hours the side or back grows lame I quietly take a new position. In the morning I start off on a new day as fresh as those whose night was of the standard sort. One must not say, ‘How good it would be if only.’ The wise man takes whatever comes and studies how to extract good from it.

3. Regular exercise is essential, the amount varying considerably for different persons. It would evidently be foolish for a frail man who eats little to take at once such exercise as fits the athlete. Each to his measure. One is liable to overdo and take too much exercise in a single piece. Exercise and rest belong together. I find I need a walk of about two miles a day, and walking is the best form of exercise. It touches every external muscle and the whole internal machinery as well. After a walk of a quarter or half a mile I take a rest of about the same time, lying flat on my back. Such a half-hour’s rest too is good before a meal.

4. The problem of clothing is closely related to that of exercise. I use porous knit cotton underwear, the same summer and winter. So even in winter I seldom need an overcoat, though I keep a thin one always at hand. For riding or storms a thick one is generally prudent. At night a single blanket is usually sufficient, though a camel’shair or down puff should be within reach. The sudden changes of the New England climate call for alertness in meeting them, night or day. Mark Twain warns us wisely, ‘If you don’t like the New England climate, just wait five minutes.’ Under such conditions we easily fall into the bad habit of adding blanket to blanket and soon find that many become necessary. Guard against this. Writing twenty years ago, I should have thought it necessary to assert that a window near the bed should be kept open at night. But in this matter there has been real progress. Nowadays every sleeper likes to breathe.

5. But have we any dominating mood? That is essential. However favorable outward conditions may be, they will not lead to old age unless attended all the way by suitable inner conditions. These latter are the important thing. Is their possessor fit to grow old? Has he the needful promptness, self-sacrifice, public spirit, which will unite him with his fellows and give him a share in the ongoings of the community? One cannot grow old alone. We rightly call the time when a man lives ‘his age.’ He should make it that, discharging casual moods as not really himself. A dominant aim of a worthy sort should knit the desires of to-day with those of to-morrow, thus giving a foretaste of immortality.

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes
My soul might ever feel!

6. It may seem strange to speak of Religion as a means for prolonging life. But I believe that without it the likelihood of growing old would be seriously lessened. Surely he who thinks that the ultimate ground-work of all is friendly and akin to himself looks forward with more hope than one who sees himself encompassed by blind or hostile agencies. There might indeed be danger that the thought of a friendly God would make us wish to shorten unduly our earthly stay. Happy as is every day of life here, I do not desire to continue here forever. My curiosity is too great. I want to explore the regions above for my many dear ones, to see if they recognize me and I them.

Yet all this presupposes a friendly God. May He not be hostile? I do not think so. Evil involves self-contradiction, like a square triangle. Nothing can be harmoniously bad. That the wise ones know. If I had doubted it, my good sense would have been restored by my wife. And here I shall speak with the extreme intimacy which I have used throughout this paper. She had undergone a desperate operation for an intestinal trouble which was congenital. I went to see her on the morning when she awoke, and was shocked at the artificialities of the place. The nurses were black-robed nuns. The walls were hung with pictures of fabulous saints. How offensive, I thought, must all this be to that lover of simplicity, especially now when she is at the point of death and able to speak only in whispers. But as I entered her face was all aglow over ‘this blessed place where the air seems full of religion and one feels entirely free and at ease.’ Her thoughts were on divine things. Such are open to us all.