Henry Miller is easily one of the best writers (and thinkers) I’ve head the opportunity to read. Every once in a while, I go back to his short essay called “On Turning Eighty”, where he summarized what matters in life, from the standpoint of being in the eighties. As you shall see, he is brutally honest (in his own style), and highlights his most important learnings about life.
(I’ll simply post the entire essay here as it is worth it; the subtitles of the essay are my own, as well as the highlights.)
How to know if you were lucky enough
IF AT EIGHTY you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss – under your breath, of course,”Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me.” If you can whistle up your ass, if you can be turned on by a fetching bottom or a lovely pair of teats, if you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.
It’s the little things that matter, not fame, success, wealth. At the top there’s very little room, whereas at the bottom there’s plenty like you, no crowding and nobody to egg you on. Don’t think for a moment that the life of a genius is a happy one. Far from it. Be thankful that you are a nobody.
If you have had a successful career, as presumably I have had, the late years may not be the happiest time of your life. (Unless you’ve learned to swallow your own shit.) Success, from the worldly standpoint, is like the plague for a writer who still has something to say. Now, when he should be enjoying a little leisure, he finds himself more occupied than ever. Now he is the victim of his fans and well wishers, of all those who desire to exploit his name. Now it is a different kind of struggle that one has to wage. The problem now is how to keep free, how to do only what one wants to do.
People do not evolve
Despite the knowledge of the world which comes from wide experience, despite the acquisition of a viable everyday philosophy, one can’t help but realize that the fools have become even more foolish and the bores more boring. One by one death claims your friends or the great ones you revered. The older you grow the faster they die off. Finally you stand alone. You observe your children, or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time – and perhaps still are.
One thing seems more and more evident to me now – people’s basic character does not change over the years. With rare exceptions people do not develop or evolve: the oak remains an oak, the pig a pig, and the dunce a dunce. Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or shortcomings. The brilliant guys at school often turn out to be not so brilliant once they are out in the world. If you disliked or despised certain lads in your class you will dislike them even more when they become financiers, statesmen or five star generals. Life forces us to learn a few lessons, but not necessarily to grow. Off-hand I can think of only a dozen or so individuals who learned the lesson of life; the great majority would not recognize their names if I were to give them.
As for the world in general, it not only does not look any better to me than when I was a boy of eight, it looks a thousand times worse. A famous writer once summed it up thus: “The past seems horrible to me, the present gray and desolate, and the future utterly appalling.” Fortunately, I do not share this bleak point of view. For one thing, I do not concern myself with the future. As for the past, whether good or bad, I have made the most of it. What future remains for me was made by my past. The future of the world is something for philosophers and visionaries to ponder on. All we every really have is the present, but very few of us ever live it. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. To me the world is neither this nor that, but all things at once, and to each according to his vision.
At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure. Moreover, what is called youth is not youth, in my opinion; it is rather something like premature old age.
I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity. Perhaps it was this curiosity – about anything and everything – that made me the writer I am. It has never left me. Even the worst bore can elicit my interest, if I am in the mood to listen.
Preserving sense of wonder
With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder. No matter how restricted my world may become I cannot imagine it leaving me void of wonder. In a sense I suppose it might be called my religion. I do not ask how it came about, this creation in which we swim, but only to enjoy and appreciate it. Much as I may rail about the condition of life in which we find ourselves I have ceased to believe that I can remedy it. I may be able to alter my own situation somewhat but not that of others. Nor do I see that anyone past or present, however great, has been able to truly alter la condition humaine.
The importance of friendships
What most people fear when they think of old age is the inability to make new friends. If one ever had the faculty of making friends one never loses it however old one grows. Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer. I have never had any trouble making friends; in fact, it has sometimes been a hindrance, this facility for making friends. There is an adage which says that one may judge a man by the company he keeps. I often wonder about the truth of this. All my life I have been friends with individuals belonging to vastly different worlds. I have had, and still have, friends who are nobodies, and I must confess they are among my best friends. I have been friends with criminals and with the despised rich. It is my friends who have kept me alive, who have given me the courage to continue, and who have also often bored me to tears. The one thing I have insisted on with all my friends, regardless of class or station in life, is to be able to speak truthfully. If I cannot be open and frank with a friend, or he with me, I drop him.
The ability to be friends with a woman, particularly the woman you love, is to me the greatest achievement. Love and friendship seldom go together. It is far easier to be friends with a man than with a woman, especially if the latter is attractive. In all my life I have known only a few couples who were friends as well as lovers.
Not taking things too seriously
Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gayety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face. The truly wise man – even the saint! – is not concerned with morals. He is above and beyond such considerations. He is a free spirit.
With advancing age my ideals, which I usually deny possessing, have definitely altered. My ideal is to be free of ideals, free of principles, free of isms and ideologies. I want to take to the ocean of life like a fish takes to the sea. As a young man I was greatly concerned about the state of the world; today, though I still rant and rave, I am content simply to deplore the state of affairs. It may sound smug to speak thus but in reality it means that I have become more humble, more aware of my limitations and those of my fellow man. I no longer try to convert people to my view of things, nor to heal them. Neither do I feel superior because they appear to be lacking in intelligence. One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless. I believe that the ideal condition for humanity would be to live in a state of peace, in brotherly love, but I must confess I know no way to bring such a condition about. I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in a way that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.
Though I am still quite a reader I have come more and more to eschew books. Whereas in the early days I looked to books for instruction and guidance, today I read primarily for enjoyment. I can no longer take books, or authors, as seriously as I once did. Especially not books by “thinkers.” I find such reading deadly now. If I do tackle a so-called piece of serious writing it is more to seek corroboration than enlightenment. Art may be therapeutic, as Nietzsche said, but only indirectly. We all need stimulation and inspiration, but they can be had in many different ways, and often in ways which would shock the moralists. Whichever path one takes it is like walking the tightrope.
I have very few friends or acquaintances my own age or near it. Though I am usually ill at ease in the company of elderly people I have the greatest respect and admiration for two very old men who seem to remain eternally young and creative. I mean Pablo Casals and Pablo Picasso, both over ninety now. Such youthful nonagenarians put the young to shame. Those who are truly decrepit, living corpses, so to speak, are the middle-aged, middle-class men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever or else are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelters to wait it out.
I have never belonged to any organization, religious, political, or otherwise. Nor have I ever voted in my life. I have been a philosophical anarchist since my teens. I am a voluntary exile who is at home everywhere except at home. As a boy I had a number of idols, and today at eighty I still have my idols. The ability to revere others, not necessarily to follow in their footsteps, seems most important to me. To have a master is even more important. The question is how and where to find one. Usually he is right in our midst, but we fail to recognize him. On the other hand I have discovered that one can learn more from a child very often than from an accredited teacher.
The importance of Teachers
I think the teacher (with a capital T) ranks with the sage and the seer. It is our misfortune not to be able to breed such animals. What is called education is to me utter nonsense and detrimental to growth. Despite all the social and political upheavals we have been through the authorized educational methods throughout the civilized world remain, in my mind at least, archaic and stultifying. They help to perpetuate the ills which cripple us. William Blake said: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” I learned nothing of value at school. I don’t believe I could pass a grammar school test on any subject even today. I learned more from idiots and nobodies than from professors of this and that. Life is the teacher, not the Board of Education. Droll as it may sound, I am inclined to agree with that miserable Nazi specimen who said: “When I hear the word Kultur I reach for my revolver.”
Small interests and beliefs
I have never been interested in organized sports. I don’t give a damn who breaks what records. The heroes of I baseball, football, basketball are virtually unknown to me. I dislike competitive games. I think one should play not to win but to enjoy the game, whatever it be. I prefer to get my exercise through play rather than through doing calisthenics. I prefer solo performance to team work. To swim, to ride a bike, to take a walk in the woods, or to play a game of ping pong satisfies all my need of exercise. I don’t believe in push ups, weight lifting or body building. I don’t believe in creating muscles unless they are to be used for some vital purpose. I think the arts of self-defense should be taught from an early age and used for that purpose only. (And, if war is to be the order of the day for the next few generations, then we should stop sending our kids to Sunday School and teach them instead to become expert killers.)
I don’t believe in health foods and diets either. I have probably been eating all the wrong things all my life – and have thrived on it. I eat to enjoy my food. Whatever I do I do first for enjoyment. I don’t believe in regular check-ups. If there is something wrong with me I’d rather not know about it, because then I would only worry about it and aggravate the condition. Nature often remedies our ills better than the doctor can. I don’t believe there is any prescription for long life. Besides, who wants to live to be a hundred? What’s the point of it? A short life and a merry one is far better than a long life sustained by fear, caution and perpetual medical surveillance. With all the progress medicine has made over the years we still have a pantheon of incurable diseases. The germs and microbes seem to have the last word always. When all else fails the surgeon steps in, cuts us to pieces, and cleans us out of our last penny. And that’s progress for you.
What the world lacks
What is so woefully missing in our world of today are grandeur, beauty, love, compassion – and freedom. Gone the days of great individuals, great leaders, great thinkers. In their place we are breeding a spawn of monsters, assassins, terrorists: violence, cruelty, hypocrisy seem to be inbred. In summoning the names of illustrious figures of the past, names like Pericles, Socrates, Dante, Abelard, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, William Blake, or even the mad Ludwig of Bavaria, one forgets that even in the most glorious times there was unbelievable poverty, tyranny, crimes unmentionable, the horrors of war, malevolence and treachery. Always good and evil, ugliness and beauty, the noble and the ignoble, hope and despair. It seems impossible for these extreme opposites not to coexist in what is called a civilized world.
If we cannot better the conditions under which we live we can at least offer an immediate and painless way out. There is the escape through euthanasia. Why is it not offered the hopeless, miserable millions for whom there is no possible chance of enjoying even a dog’s life? We were not asked to be born; why should we be refused the privilege of making our exit when things become unbearable? Must we wait for the atom bomb to finish us off all together?
“For all your ills I give you laughter.”
I don’t like to end on a sour note. As my readers well know, my motto has always been: “Always merry and bright.” Perhaps that is why I never tire of quoting Rabelais: “For all your ills I give you laughter.” As I look back on my life, which has been full of tragic moments, I see it more as a comedy than a tragedy. One of those comedies in which while laughing your guts out you feel your heart breaking. What better comedy could there be? The man who takes himself seriously is doomed.
The tragedy which the vast majority of human beings is living is another matter. Therein I see no comic element of relief. When I speak of a painless way out for the suffering millions I am not speaking cynically or as one who sees no hope for mankind. There is nothing wrong with life itself. It is the ocean in which we swim and we either adapt to it or sink to the bottom. But it is in our power as human beings not to pollute the waters of life, not to destroy the spirit which animates us.
The most difficult thing for a creative individual is to refrain from the temptation to make the world to his liking and to accept his fellow man for what he is, whether good, bad or indifferent. One does his best, but it is never good enough.