What brings longevity? – UPDATED

Modern medicine is miraculous. The placement of a stent to hold open a narrowed tube…and things quickly get rosier. I thank you for your prayers, yesterday. When a man is 75 years old, everything can look scary very quickly. Pop is looking better; things look much better, all around, after a frightening few hours.

It’s funny, both of my in-law’s fathers died in their 40’s, of heart ailments – and that was back when folks walked everywhere and worked hard at physical labor, and foods were essentially natural and free of all the add-ins and preservatives. I agree that we all should probably exercise more and eat more whole, unprocessed food, but there has to be more to longevity than just that.

My in-laws are in their 70’s. They have always lived pretty “healthful” lives, by society’s standards. Marlon Brando died at 80, Orson Welles at 75. Ted Kennedy is 75. Winston Churchill lived to be almost 90, and all of these men did it all wrong. They smoked, they drank, they ate what they liked. They mixed it up with their fellows.

There’s got to be more to longevity than eating a bowl of oatmeal, taking a walk and avoiding the hamburger. That “mixing-it-up” and staying engaged has got to be part of it.

Some of it is luck, obviously, but I think a hardy spirit plays into it, too. I think to some extent you really have to want to keep going. My MIL is 70, and she’s slowing down, but she can still run rings around me and my friends when she wants to – and most days she wants to. She’d rather go shopping – and come home empty-handed – than sit before a television set or a computer screen. She goes to daily mass, she walks the dog, she babysits the grandkids whenever she’s asked, and in the meantime she’s cleaning and cooking (let anyone in the neighborhood suffer so much as a sniffle or a twisted ankle and they’re being treated to her incredible food), remembering every birthday – the woman is fully engaged in life (and her life has not been without suffering; what life is?); she grasps life everyday and gives it a great big hug. Her life force is at least as strong and purposeful as Churchill’s. She gets up everyday to meet her moment.

When Buster first left for school, there was an inconsolable week before I started liking the empty nest. In those first days I took a walk through the grounds of a convent and ran into a semi-cloistered nun I have known for years; Sr. A used to give me spiritual direction. She was ancient then. Now she is more ancient – she must be nearing 100 years old – and yet she was walking the same wooded path as I, and not much more slowly. A brief chat told me she was still completely in her wits. She was returning from a visit to the community cemetery and informed me of a sister who had died recently, of cancer, “so young, only 71,” she said.

I was surprised to hear it, and also to learn that the sister had been in her seventies. The last time I’d seen her I would have told you she was 55. I said as much to Sister Alice. “Well, we live simple lives, with simple food and lots of fresh air, and not many of the stresses you deal with in ordinary life, so age does not hang so hard on us.” she said, “We mostly ignore the popular culture. For our entertainment we talk to each other or we do puzzles, and these keep the mind sharp, and of course, we pray. Prayer keeps the mind clear. It also helps to keep the soul uncluttered, and the spirit focused and rested.”

“So, that’s what keeps you going,” I teased, “no husbands to ask you where the thing they lost is, no kids to scream at you, no news blaring at you, and Mass and prayer.”

“Community life is not without it’s stresses,”
she said, rubbing her eyes which remain a startling blue. “I’ve lived with hundreds of sisters, and not all of them were always lovable. Nor was I always lovable. But that sort of stress is transient and can only possess you as much as you possess it. Whether you feel stress because of your child or I feel stress because of a sister, we can let it go – so little of it is really in our hands, anyway. The rest of the ‘blaring news’ as you call it is just noise. And what is new with you?”

Sr. Alice has known me since I first walked the convent grounds pregnant with my Elder Son and missing my husband, who was away. She listened delightedly as I related both my sons’ recent triumphs and small defeats and was stunned to realize that Buster was now in college. Then she said, “I asked what was new with you, and you told me about your sons and your husband. Now that the nest is empty, what is new with you?”

“Well,” I shrugged, “I’m walking in the woods every day, and I’m praying a bit more than I had been. That’s about all.”

She patted my arm, “it’s a start,” she said. “Get busy with something. And keep praying.”

We parted ways – she headed back in to the house, I went to the cemetery, found a bench and studied the headstones. So many of these sisters had lived far into their 90’s – living the life Sr. Alice had described, a life of “simple food and fresh air,” the simple entertainments of puzzles and other people. And daily mass. And daily prayer – prayer to open the morning and close the evening, prayer to right the course throughout the meandering day.

My in-laws also live simple lives – chores, good food, good friends and prayer. Maybe it really is as simple as that.

Read about another nun’s long interesting life, here.

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