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Opinion What my 80 years have taught me

The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York on April 27. (Stringer/Reuters)

“At eighty things do not occur; they recur.”

— Alan Bennett

Not necessarily. Surrendering to repetition is optional. Among the abundant pleasures of turning 80, in addition to being well beyond the danger of dying young, is this: Having become skillful at ignoring the merely recurring things, you have more brain cells to devote to other things worth noticing and trying.

“There is,” as George Santayana said, “no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” So, as they approach the end of their intervals, 80-year-old martini drinkers — plucky octogenarians not intimidated by their busybody physicians — should expand their evening repertoire to include Manhattans. A ninth decade is a good time to acquire a new dog and name him Miles Davis, a tribute to the trumpeter whose magic it is never too late to discover. If 80-year-olds will make their smartphones’ ringtones the beginning of Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” even spam calls will trigger a taste of perfection.

“Age,” Montaigne wrote, “imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face.” For geniuses like him, perhaps. But all 80-year-olds whose lives have given them the faces they have should select for their phones’ wallpaper two photos of America’s most eloquent face. One should be of Abraham Lincoln in 1858, the year of his debates with Stephen Douglas. The other should be the last photographic portrait of him, taken on Feb. 5, 1865. It captures what Walt Whitman called Lincoln’s “deep latent sadness.” These photos can be constant reminders, during today’s serial hysterias, of the sorrow that has accompanied the pursuit of a more perfect union.

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In 1941, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 64.8 (today, 77.8), only 6.8 percent of the population was over 65 (today, 16 percent), penicillin was on the horizon but the Salk polio vaccine was a dozen years distant, and most hospitals spent more on clean linen than medical technologies. Sixty-three percent of households did not have telephones, less than half the U.S. population age 25 and older had a high school diploma (today, 90 percent) and homosexual sex was criminalized in all 48 states. The nation has undergone a moral advancement — consider the casual callousness toward minorities of all sorts eight decades ago — as stunning as its material improvement.

Yet the United States’ social hypochondria has deepened, and Americans’ pain thresholds have lowered during the nation’s advancement. Perhaps it is progress, of sorts, that status anxieties have displaced material deprivations in fueling the national pastime — no, not baseball: whining. But to be 80 is to have, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, lived through the emergence of today’s therapeutic culture. It saturates a large class of painfully earnest Americans — expensively schooled but negligibly educated — who, when not extravagantly indignant about Lincoln and other supposed national blemishes, are preoccupied with their malleable identities and acute sensitivities.

This culture has had one inadvertent benefit: It provoked Peter De Vries (1910-1993), who relegated Mark Twain to the rank of America’s second-wittiest novelist. “Rapid-fire means of communication,” De Vries mordantly observed, “have brought psychic dilapidation within the reach of the most provincial backwaters, so that large metropolitan centers and educated circles need no longer consider it their exclusive property, nor preen themselves on their special malaises.” And: “Once terms like identity doubts and midlife crisis become current,” De Vries observed, “the reported cases of them increase by leaps and bounds.” What fun De Vries could have had with “white fragility.”

As Damon Runyon said, “All of life is 6 to 5 against.” So, it is a momentous social achievement that those who turn 80 this month — they are only 18 months older than the president, who is only eight months older than Mick Jagger — must wait five more years to get the satisfaction of joining a decreasingly exclusive club: By percentage, this nation’s most rapidly growing age cohort consists of those 85 and older.

To be 80 years old in this republic is to have lived through almost exactly one-third of its life. And to have seen so many ephemeral excitements come and go that one knows how few events are memorable beyond their day. (Try to remember the things that had you in a lather during, say, the George H.W. Bush administration.) This makes an American 80-year-old’s finishing sprint especially fun, because it can be focused on this fact: To live a long life braided with the life of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to an imperishable proposition is simply delightful.

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