Reflections at 80: Aging versus Growing Old

16 Nov

Aging is inevitable, growing old is avoidable. Expressed differently, one is never too young to be old or eve die, but one is never so aged as to become old. This is because aging is physical, while being old is mental and spiritual. In my experience one does not grow old if five force fields stay active in daily consciousness: love, health, play, work, and caring for the future.


Retirement is an insidious trap that confuses aging with growing old. It is fine to stop doing a kind of work, but not to stop working. Vegetating produces decay. It is fine, often regenerative, to shift the geographic site and nature of work, but never to act as if one has reached the end of ‘working years.’


Play has many dimensions: anything that is fun, humor, games, sports, and to resist growing old embodies a subtle sense of irony about our limited understanding of ‘the real.’ It often reaches its climax in very private spaces: In my case, writing poems and playing chess with a computer.


Caring for the future may seem an odd component of staying young. Caring for the future is without boundaries: of humanity, of nature, of the cosmos, and of course, of loved ones, possibly including animal companions. It also means in my case a continuation of the always unfinished citizen pilgrimage, an impatience to reach that unattainable ‘heavenly city’ while here on earth. Such a pilgrimage is both vocation and vision.


In my case work is connected with caring for the future, and is unlikely to cease prior to my death, or possibly as an effect of severe physical decline. For me work is not always distinguishable from play, and centers upon purposeful engagement with living in a manner that can be shared or that contributes to the joy and betterment of those who are close in mind and spirit.


Love and health hardly require comment, and are rarely clarified by words. Both are, of course, foundational for all of us dedicated to staying young, but neither can be purchased in the marketplace, although both require continuous nurturing care. We should all do our best to resist premature old age by remembering that we have freedom and responsibility to overcome most of the annoying intrusions of aging.


I have only discovered this vital distinction between aging and growing old while reflecting these past few days on what it means for me to become 80!


9 Responses to “Reflections at 80: Aging versus Growing Old”

  1. ANdre Rabanea November 16, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    Nice Post!

  2. Esther Lezra December 1, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    Dear Richard,

    It is such a treat to see your poetry and poetic visions here. I must say it is a slim substitute for the actual materiality of you!!

    Please be safe and come home soon!!


    • Richard Falk December 3, 2010 at 9:05 am #

      THANKS, Esther, for being so affirming, especially beyond all reason! After the longest imaginable journey we just arrived in Cancun, which does live up to its reputation as Yucatan resort area..

      We return on Dec 19th, and hope you will be around, but I seem to recall that you will be in Ithaca.

  3. John Ballard December 2, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Having turned 80 on 6 November, I find that those a generation or two younger ascribe my failure to grow old to the advantages of an academic whose friends are all a decade or two younger. My mother would simply have repeated her nostrum that I never learned to act my age.

  4. Jean-Luc Karleskind January 1, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for this piece of wisdom. It does clarify something I have often observed.

    I trust you know Stéphane Hessel. At 93, he perfectly illustrates what you say. Stéphane, with his gift for memorising poems and being on a “citizen pilgrimage”, could count amongst those you coin “close in mind and spirit”.


    • Richard Falk January 2, 2011 at 10:24 am #

      I appreciate your gracious words, and I was not familiar with the inspirational example of Stephane Hessel! Thanks for calling him
      to my attention.

  5. myintzan June 4, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Dear Richard

    I read your article more than six months after you wrote it. Congratulations on such a reflectibve and positive (not ‘positivist’) outlook. (Taliking of positivim what do you think of academic J.S.Watson’s crtique of yours and others view in his 1979 article in the University of Illinois Law Forum)?

    It reminds me of two essays that I have read in Burma when I was about fifteen years old. ‘Reflections on my Eightieth Birthday’ written by Bertrand Russell in 1952 and ‘How to (Not to) Grow Old’ also by Russell. This article How to Grow Old was translated into Burmese by the late Ludu Daw Amar (1915-2008) and published in Burmese language Oway magazine in March 1970 after Russell’s death in February 1970.

    The second article is somewhat (may be just a bit) ‘flippant’ by the conservative columnist George F. Will in April 1981 edition of Newsweek which I first read in Canberra, Australia. Will at times writes well (so does Scalia even if I strongly disagree with their views I acknowledge their writing or at least rhetorical skills) ‘ On Turning 40’. Will wrote (in one of his rare ‘sympathetic’ views) that ‘Sympathy is harder to teach than logic’.

    With that I give my tribute to your large sense of sympathy and your rigorous (logic) or enlargement of your understanding of internatonal law and contribution to international service.

    With Best Wishes

    Myint Zan

    • Richard Falk June 4, 2011 at 8:41 am #

      Dear Myint: Thanks for your encouragement! I never read the J.S. Watson critique, but maybe I should try to find it. Hope you are doing well. With greetings, Richard


  1. "I'm Against Getting Old" - November 9, 2018

    […] plan was to write and tackle the differences between aging and getting old. But, I came across this article by Richard Falk. He eloquently and poetically captures far better than I the differences between […]

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