The number 70 has a kind of Biblical gravitas. It’s the number of elders appointed by Moses to lead the recalcitrant Israelites, and the number of people who went down to join Joseph, in Egypt. Jesus sent 70 disciples out to minister in his name, and the first Jewish Sanhedrin had 70 blokes in it. And, of course, there is Psalm 90:10:
“The days of our life are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away”.
All this has some personal import because I turn 70 today, and can no longer fool myself that I am middle aged. I’m old. And before you feed me one of the lines of balderdash that pass for wisdom in our culture - “you’re only as old as you feel”; “70 is the new 50”; “age is just a number” or some other such nonsense, let me tell you that I am happy to be old. Deliriously happy.
All of us trace a kind of bell curve path through this life. Once we didn’t exist, then we are born and slowly increase our presence in the world until at some stage we reach a peak and then we begin to slowly decline. Over a period of years our energy and our presence ebbs away, until it reaches zero once more and we - all of us - cease to exist. I am well down the descending slope of that curve. Every particular part of this rising and falling line has its own allotted tasks and its gifts and rewards as well as its pains and frustrations, but our culture seems to be fixated on one part of the journey - that of early adulthood. So people in their 20s and 30s are the cultural paradigms for appearance, and the important tasks of that age - finding a place in the world and finding a mate - seem to continue to be central in people’s imaginations well into later life. In our culture the biggest insult you can offer anyone it to say that they look old, but this obsession with being young, of looking and acting young is crazy. It is a battle with inevitability which we must all one day lose, and it distracts us from getting on with the more age appropriate tasks we need to be addressing, if we are going to complete our bell-curved trajectory with the necessary panache and elan. At 70 I’ve got some stuff to be getting on with, and its the most interesting, rewarding, enlarging stuff I’ve ever done. Yep, I’m old, and glad to be so.
But I have a more personal reason to rejoice at being 70.
When I was 56 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Most, if not all, men will develop prostate cancer if they live long enough. Most men will die with it, not of it, but there are some cases which are dangerous and mine is one of those. Prostate cancer is graded with a thing called the Gleason score, which runs from 2 to 10, with 2 being a slow moving and non invasive cancer and 10 being a fast moving and highly disruptive one. My Gleason score was 9. In 2008 I had my prostate removed and underwent a lengthy bout of radiotherapy, but the cancer had moved into my lymph system and from there to goodness knows where else in my body. People who know about these things told me my chance of surviving for 5 years after diagnosis were about 30%. But that was 14 years ago and here I am, writing this, non posthumously.
When Clemency and I were first told how grim things looked, we reasoned that the men with my numbers, who survived, surely didn’t do so by accident, so why shouldn’t I be one of the surviving 30%? There had to be things which I might do which would load the dice in my favour, and we set out to find them. And find them we did. There is no one magic bullet, but I think my chances of survival were greatly bolstered by these things:
- Excellent medical care. I have had a great surgeon, skilled radiologists and wise GPs. Over the last 14 years procedures have continually been researched and progressed and I’ve benefitted from some of those.
- Lifestyle changes. I was blessed to have some good advice soon after my diagnosis. Richard Sutton introduced me to Ian Gawler, who taught me three things which have been, literally, life saving.
- Meditation. I was always a tinkerer with meditation, but in 2008 I went to the Gawler Institute in Melbourne where every day starts with 40 minutes of meditation, as well as other sessions during the day. I came home with a new habit of silence, which I have maintained and developed ever since. I regard meditation as the single most important factor in my health and inner growth over the past decade and a half. Meditation had healed me on all manner of levels.
- Diet. Ian Gawler taught me the importance of a plant based diet. For a year or two I was vegan, and now I am sort of piscaterian. I eat fish, eggs, a small amount of chicken, and as few dairy products as I can. When I’m out, I will eat what’s put before me and at Christmas there’s ham and turkey, but otherwise I avoid red meat.
- Exercise. We walk daily, usually for an hour or so. I’ve done many long walks (as in several hundred km) since diagnosis. Walking is good for the body and the mind. In the guise of pilgrimage it has also become an important spiritual practice.
- The love of friends and family. I have people round me who love me. There are many people who have supported me, prayed for me, wished me well; and all of this has mattered to every level of my being and I am profoundly grateful.
Back in 2008 my family and I looked to the future and made a “aim for the stars and you’ll reach the moon” kind of goal. I decided I would be ridiculously optimistic and set my sights on living until I was 70. And here I am. And hand on heart, the last 14 years have been the best, the richest, the most fulfilling, the most delightful of my life. Life is simple, almost monastic now. I live in a pleasant house with my oldest, dearest, closest, most beloved friend. I read books and discuss them with intelligent friends. I walk. I take photographs. I sit in silence. I have a pervading sense of being held and guided and loved by the great presence at the heart of all things; and that sense has grown exponentially over the years.
My new doctor confidently assures me he can keep me going for a good while yet. Later his year we will fly to Australia and see the grandkids. Early next year we’ll take the caravan around the North island. I’ve not given up on the idea of walking the Camino Santiago one more time. But these things, as are all plans, are merely maybes. Death, one of the two great certainties, has been a constant companion these last 14 years and I now have no fear of it, recognising it even, as a friend. I know that its familiar shape is the shadow cast by the blinding light of resurrection.
So here I am at an age where I can’t sit on the floor without planning beforehand how I will get up again. Do I wish I was back then, in that sprightly age before glasses and hearing aids and creaking knees? Not for an instant. I look back 20 years to when I was 50, and that doesn’t seem very long ago. I know that in another 20 years I will certainly not be here. And that thought fills me not so much with dread, as with a growing sense of curiosity and wonder.
So don’t start with the “gosh you don’t look that old” nonsense. I have 70 years. Each one of them cost me something and taught me something, and gave me something, and I don’t care to be deprived of any of them.