A large part of my admittedly lame social life involves monthly lunches with two old colleagues of mine who have more time on their hands than is sometimes advisable (hence lunches with me). Both are in their early 70s, have tasted success on the big stage, and now find themselves seriously worried about the future.
Not worried in the way most of us worry about stuff — jobs, bills, kids — but chronically anxious about big things they have little control over. The kind of anxiety that often plagues geezers and, if the research is to be believed, can seriously impact your quality of life and, in some cases send you to an early grave.
I was particularly struck by this during my last two get-togethers with these old friends. Some of this anxiety is understandable: My old friend The Prairie Editor has navigated the political and literary landscape for the better part of the last half-century with no visible means of financial support. I’ve been in his shoes, financially, so I know what it’s like to wonder where the next paycheck is going to come from. But he’s also become more frail in recent years, and like the rest of us in Geezerville, he’s discovering that mortality is less theoretical than it once was.
Then, just last week, while lunching with The Captain, an old publishing pal, I learned that he, too, was struggling to untether himself from the weight of the world. The Captain worries about lots of things he has no control over, stuff like Tea Party politics, the Keystone pipeline, the NRA, Ukrainian sovereignty, and the like, but his anxieties incline more toward the existential: What role is he supposed to play in the world, now that he’s a decade into retirement? How can he still contribute in a meaningful way? Plus, why do all his friends have cancer?
I’m not much good in these situations — not because I don’t care about my buddies, but because I have a little trouble relating these days. That’s not to say I haven’t sailed through these stormy seas myself in the past. It was only eight years ago that I gave up our home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy after the newspaper My Lovely Wife and I launched went belly up. I know something about angst. And maybe because my two old pals have never been through that financial cleansing experience, they’ve never had the opportunity to come out clean — and clear — on the other side, where you really begin to understand the power of that old question: What’s the worse thing that could happen?
That’s all economics, though. Which, in a lot of ways, is less worrisome than the angst that many of us pack into our bags when we embark on our journey to Geezerville. That baggage is all about purpose, path, and, most urgently, mortality. We want to know if we can still make a difference in the world and whether we’ll be around long enough to figure out how.
These are all good questions to ask, all good intentions to have.
But when I looked across the table at my anxious pals, all I could say was, “Don’t worry. It’s fatal.”
I know it sounds too simple, but it’s backed up with research. Numerous studies have shown that anxiety actually shortens your lifespan. A 2012 study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for premature aging. (Do you worry too much? Check out this site for more information.)
An ancient Buddhist axiom tells us that we are all going to suffer in our lives. It’s just the way life works. The key is to be unattached to outcomes, because we really don’t have that much control over the way things play out. So enjoy the good when it comes and work through the bad in its turn. You’re going to get plenty of both as you pile on the years. Just don’t worry about it.