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Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige

 

Isn’t it amazing that Americans are living longer than ever before in recorded history  More than 87 million Americans will be over 65 by the year 2040, according to the National Institute of Aging.  Today, the over‑65 group accounts for about 30 million people; the elderly make up over 15% of the nation’s population.  Life expectancy and other demographic trends will have a profound impact on health‑care costs in the future.

About 200 years ago, the average life expectancy in America was 35 years.  A child born today can expect to live to be at least 75 years. In a short 200 years, the average life expectancy has more than doubled.  The National Institute on Aging projects that in 2040 the average life expectancy will be 86 years for men and 92 years for women.  About 66% of all the people who have lived beyond 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. Statisticians describe this phenomenon has as, “The senior explosion.” One wonders, what does Jewish tradition have to say about growing old?

This week’s parsha deals with the subject of growing old. A wise man once said, “There are three ingredients to the good life and they are: learning, earning, and yearning.” Let us examine the Midrash’s exposition of Abraham and Sarah’s life, “She lived 100 years and twenty years and seven years –so were the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1).

Why did the sacred narrator use such an unusual configuration?

Rashi explains that the Midrash tells us that all the years of Sarah’s life were marked with the quality of goodness. When she was 100 years old, she still had the beauty of a 20 year old. When she was 20, she still had the child‑like innocence of a 7 year old.

Sarah  kept those qualities all her life, even into old age. Did Sarah hang out at the local salon to maintain her beauty? Did she have periodic face‑lifts? I doubt it. Sarah’s beauty emanated from within. Her life was truly remarkable when you consider it. Both Abraham and Sarah began their careers when most would have filed for Social Security.

In short, both Abraham and Sarah taught us that growing old does not mean we cannot achieve our dreams and aspirations.  Sarah’s personal narrative bears this truth out. For many years, she was childless. Sarah experienced many hard years of traveling in the desert. Sarah lived with famine; she endured the stigma of being a childless woman in a society that valued women solely in terms of their ability to bear offspring.  She was forcefully taken into the homes of Pharaoh and Abimelech. She had the thankless job of being a stepmother to a problem child. How did she do it?

Rabbi Zusa of Anapol explained that Sarah had an optimistic attitude about life.  For every uncomfortable situation, Sarah would always say, “This too is for the good.” Even in bad times, Sarah learned to view negative situations as opportunities for growth.

Unfortunately, many people forget that one’s life is not dependent on external circumstances. We may not always be able to control our circumstances, but we do have autonomy as to how we will react to the circumstances.

Sarah and Abraham teach us that we need to view life as something that is unconditionally meaningful. According to Erik Ericson, the primary problem facing us when we get old is simply this: Shall we face our twilight years with integrity, or shall we face it with despair?

Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, “I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” Her reply was unique and precious, “I hope you live long enough to make it.”

Since life is a gift, we must learn to treasure it at any age. Indeed, many great people of history have done exactly achieved great things in the last segment of their lives.  In the Bible we find that Abraham was 75 when he first went forth from his father’s home to start a new nation. He sires a child at 100, while Sarah becomes a mother at 90.

Moses was 80 when God called and, although he cited many excuses, he never mentioned his old age.   Socrates gave the world his wisest philosophy at 70; Socrates even managed  to learn how to play on musical instruments in the last years of his life.   Plato was only a student at 50. He did his best after reaching 60.   Michelangelo was still composing poetry and designing structures in his 89th year. He painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel on his back on a scaffold at near 90.

The story of Sarah teaches us that we need to see every epoch in a person’s life as an opportunity to grow . Sarah was that kind of person.

This week, the Cardinals are playing the Red Sox for the World Series Championship. There is a wonderful story in baseball history about growing old. One of baseball’s most remarkable pitchers was Satchel Paige who played for some of the most prestigious teams of the oldNegro League.

After Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in baseball in 1947, Satchel Paige became the oldest “rookie”  to ever debut in the major leagues, at the age of 42 years and two days. With the St. Louis Browns beating the Indians 4–1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Boudreau pulled his starting pitcher, Bob Lemon, and sent Paige in. Paige, not knowing the signs and not wanting to confuse his catcher, pitched cautiously. Chuck Stevens lined a ball left field for a single. Jerry Priddy bunted Stevens over to second. Up next was Whitey Platt, and Paige decided to take command—and took command he certainly did!

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, 59 at the time, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting Jim Gosger out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt. 

Carl Yastrzemski doubled and Tony Conigliaro hit a fly ball to end the inning. The next six batters went down in order, including a strikeout of Bill Monbouquette. In the fourth inning, Paige took the mound, to be removed according to plan by Haywood Sullivan. He walked off to a boisterous ovation despite the small crowd of 9,000 people.

Many of his quotes are famous because of their enduring value. He once said, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Of course growing old has a lot to do with our genetic histories,  nutrition, and proper care, exercise and just plain luck. Nevertheless, an individual’s attitude toward aging is important.

Like Sarah and Abraham, Satchel Paige gave us a precious vision about how we conclude our life journey in this world.

 



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