Only 200 copies of Henry Miller’s 1972 chapbook, On Turning Eighty, were ever printed; each hand-numbered and signed. How I ended up with copy 48 is a story for another day. The book contains 3 essays, one of which is on aging and living a fulfilling life. Learning life-lessons from some of the wisest people has long fascinated me. And Miller’s short essay is full of them.
Reflecting back on his many lessons he reframes success into the little things.
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 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.
He also colorfully comments on the fundamental nature of people and our relatively unchanging views on them.
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 thing seems more and more evident to me now — people’s basic character does not change over the years. … Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or short-comings. 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.
In a passage that reminds me of Alan Watts, Miller praises living in the here and now and reflects on the cheerfulness of old age.
The future of the world is something for philosophers and visionaries to ponder on. All we ever really have is the present, but very few of us ever live it. I an 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.
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.
Reflecting on the value of learning from idiots, Miller writes that life is the ultimate teacher.
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 wider 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.
Part of living in the present is an Epicurean desire for enjoyment and making a conscious choice, in old age, to not know certain ills.
I don’t believe in health foods or diets either. I have probably been eating all of the wrong things all of my life — and I 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 could only worry about it and aggravate the condition. Nature often remedies our ills better than the doctor can. I don’t believe there is a prescription for a 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 clears us out of our last penny. And that’s progress for you.
The best part about growing old is the sense of context that allows you to really learn what is truly important.
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. …
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.
He continues with perhaps my favorite passage …
One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless. … I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in ways 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.
On Turning Eighty, is a wonderfully fascinating read on the perspective that 80 years gives you.