As I search websites, books and magazines for illuminating ideas about old age and the arts, I keep running into a quotation from English poet, George Herbert: “And now in age I bud again!” It’s a lovely sentiment, simply but wonderfully expressed. So I was chagrined to discover that Herbert’s dates are 1593-1633. The poor man only lived to be 40 years old!
Well, yes, but average life expectancy at birth for English people in the late 16th/early 17th centuries was just under 40 -39.7 years.
But no again! From a Plimoth Plantation article debunking myths about people in the past, I learn that the low figure is mostly because of the high rate of infant and child mortality—over 12 percent of all children born would die within their first year. A man or woman who reached the age of 30 could expect to live to 59.
Still, his 40 years wasn’t our 40 years. Far from it. The statistics may lie because of rates of infant mortality. Nonetheless, writes Atul Gawande in the April 30, 2007 New Yorker, “for most of our hundred-thousand-year existence-all but the past couple of hundred years – the average life span of human beings has been thirty years or less. Today, the average life span in developed countries is almost eighty years.”
The author goes on to suggest that “If human life spans depend on our genetics, then medicine has got the upper hand. We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time.”
Our aging is fraught with problems, of course-late onset Alzheimers, for example. As scientists learn more about the whys and wherefores of aging, some things will get better, but we may come up against others just as hard.
Nevertheless, I, for one, am grateful to be “a freak.” We have been given a great gift, years more to explore, to learn, to grow. We can “bud again.”