Imagine being born in 1911 to a peasant Sikh family in Punjab, India. Your legs are so frail that you’re unable to walk until the age of five. The village kids call you danda, or stick.
In time, you grow stronger. You become an avid amateur runner. Unable to attend school or read, you begin working alongside your father on the farm. Eventually you marry, start a family and farm of your own.
You teach your children how to farm and love your family dearly. But then tragedy strikes. Your wife dies in 1992 and your eldest daughter passes away due to complications from childbirth.
In 1994 your fifth son, Kuldip, dies in a construction accident. The depth of loss sends you into a deep depression and emotional turmoil. You move to England to live with your son, and spend your days at home, watching television.
Running breathes new life into you
One day, you see the London marathon. It rekindles an old passion for running when you were younger. So, at the young age of 89, you return to running.
You show up for training at Redbridge, Essex, wearing a three-piece suit. Fortunately, the coach works with you, gets you into appropriate attire, and soon you’re in the 2000 London Marathon.
Running breathes new life into you. At the age of 93, you complete a marathon in 6 hours, 54 minutes. You beat the world best for anyone in the 90-plus age bracket.
In 2004, you’re featured in an Adidas advertising campaign with celebrities like Muhammad Ali and David Beckham. You end up breaking records, and complete marathons at age 100 and 101.
Despite experiencing racism, you cast a charitable eye towards your fellow man. You become an advocate for health and wellness, encouraging people to eat healthily and treat others and all things with respect.
In 2012 you carry the Olympic torch. You refuse to accumulate personal wealth from sponsorship’s, and donate the money to charity.
The first 20 miles are not difficult
Now that you’ve imagined such a remarkable life, meet the man behind the biography. His name is Fauja Singh, and he’s 108 years old.
According to Wikipedia.org, Singh “attributes his physical longevity to abstaining from smoking and alcohol and following a simple, vegetarian diet.”
This is what Singh has said about marathons:
“The first 20 miles are not difficult. As for last six miles, I run while talking to God.”
Fauja Singh, despite a difficult childhood and great personal loss, exemplifies dignity, grace, persistence and charity. He is a model for how to age with elegance, and in the process, inspire others to be the best they can be.
We can learn a lot from Fauja Singh. About the power of not giving up. About the importance of finding something you enjoy throwing yourself into. Not to mention, the merits of exercise and a healthy diet.
Equally important is Fauja Singh’s charitable giving. Since his basic needs are met, he donates his sponsorship monies to charity. This not only helps others, but no doubt fills his own heart with a sense of purpose and joy.
Aging is not for the faint of heart
I remember when my father used to stand up from his reading chair. He’d place his beefy hands on his knees, lean forward and grunt. Then he’d turn to me and say, “Don’t get old, Johnny.”
“What’s the alternative,” I used to think to myself. “Dying young?”
Watching my parents age, with all their physical indignities and ailments, is instructive. I studied the way my father, despite a bad heart and aching body, found solace in his books and outdoor yard work.
My mother, despite being marooned in her lift chair due to advanced Parkinson’s disease, finds joy in her books, news programs, conversations and favorite desserts.
My mother also takes the time to listen to her young caretakers. They share their love lives and family troubles. Mom renders wise advice and kind encouragements, interspersed with a few jokes and a wonderful sense of humor.
Mom refuses to give up and dress sloppily. She takes pleasure in coordinating her outfits and jewelry. Not because she’s trying to impress anyone, but because she has self-respect. “It feels good to look presentable,” she tells me.
The interior of the soul
There’s plenty of advice on how to age well. Stuff like eating right, exercise, plenty of sleep, managing stress and drinking lots of water. All important things to focus on.
Of course, some folks struggle with their aging appearance, enlisting the help of dyes, Botox, hair transplants, beauty treatments and plastic surgery. In some cases it helps, in others it makes things worse.
Society today focuses incessantly on youth and exterior beauty, at the expense of intellectual growth and interior beauty.
“There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.” — Victor Hugo
The problem with this shallow celebration of youth and beauty is that we miss the more important thing:
Developing our minds and character
Thus, many become ill-equipped for the indignities of aging. They rush to gyms or cosmetic surgeons to somehow put the genie of youth back in the bottle. But the genie is gone.
Pleasure is a shadow
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on good health, and we all have a little vanity. We want to look our best, at any age. But what about your interior life? What about your mind? How are you equipping yourself for the road ahead?
The thing that helped my father, and still assists my mother with the rigors of aging, is that they never stopped developing their minds. Books were my father’s best friends, and their lessons and stories provided perspective and answers for him about this grand journey of life.
My mother still reads regularly. Jousting with new ideas keeps her mind engaged, nimble and growing. Not to mention, a curious and well-read mind makes for an interesting person.
“Pleasure is a shadow, wealth is vanity, and power a pageant; but knowledge is ecstatic in enjoyment, perennial in frame, unlimited in space and indefinite in duration.” — DeWitt Clinton
The knowledge of yourself
Loving our families and friends, personal development, travel, new experiences, never ending education of our minds, helping others, and pursuit of our creative passions all create memories and an emotional armor that we can call upon in old age.
Long after our looks fade, these things become our closest allies as we march slowly toward the void. To allow vanity and narcissism to feed your ego is to deny yourself a deeper, more fulfilling and meaningful existence.
“The knowledge of yourself will preserve you from vanity.” — Miguel de Cervantes
I know it’s not easy. The bloom of youth, when our bodies are beautiful and strong, is a hard thing to relinquish.
I can only imagine how devastating it is for glamorous movie stars, whose careers and personas rely heavily on their appearance. Then, over the years, they witness on screen their slow, public disintegration.
The poet Dylan Thomas seems to recommend that we fight back against Father Time, when he wrote:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
My sense is that we should do all we can to avoid the “dying of the light.” We should eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Not so much for vanity sake, but to sustain us for the road ahead.
More importantly, we should continue to develop our minds and character. It’s no coincidence that the people we admire most tend to have an interior beauty and deep character.
Learn to gently let go of your youth when the time comes. Dress in a flattering way that reflects your personal aesthetic, but don’t become a cartoon of your younger self. Age with style and elegance.
Read broadly to keep feeding your mind. Cherish your family, friends, and passions. Help others.
In these ways you will shine now and in the twilight of your life. Your light will eclipse the dandies, fops and egos, who have yet to discover their true centers and deeper meaning of life.
This is how you age with elegance, and refuse to “go gentle into that good night.”