By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
I have come across many people who believe that after a certain age, every additional day they get to live is a bonus. That age is commonly considered to be 60 years, which has been the ‘traditional’ age of retirement around the world. I presume that 60 was chosen as the dividing line at a time when the lifespan was shorter than what it is today, between 70 – 80 years in most of the developed world, with some countries and many people in all countries going beyond 80, that is, exceeding the estimated average lifespan.
The reasons are no doubt numerous and complex. Not everything can be explained by medical science, although it can point to factors that account for a substantial proportion of those years. Thus, it is said that the strongest predictor of one’s lifespan is one’s genetic make-up, but we have a long way to go yet to put it all together and come up with a solid theory. Nevertheless, there is enough knowledge around that can guide us to better living and a longer life. What is lacking, though, is the will to take up advice deriving form this knowledge seriously, as we opt for the easier paths of least resistance and yield to temptations to indulge, especially when we are young and the peer pressure factor is strongest.
We all wish to live as long as possible, though how long that will be we can never know. A colleague and friend passed away recently, just a few days short of his 81st birthday. When I went to pay my respects, I got to talking to another friend who had met the departed some time last year. ‘He told me then,’ said my friend, ‘that he felt it was time to go now, that he had lived enough.’ Between the time he expressed this wish, if one may call it so, and his passing, he had continued to be busy with various things in spite of suffering from certain ailments that, however, did not dampen his zeal to continue reading and writing.
That remark reminded me of the sister of my dada (paternal grandfather), who we used to address as dadi-betel, because she regularly chewed paan, that is betel leaves in which were wrapped some ingredients, a main one being supari or ‘paque’ as we call it here. Paan-chewing is a very popular habit in the Indian subcontinent, and paans come in dozens of varieties, some of which can be very expensive indeed, containing gold leaves and what not, and exuding exquisite perfume. To come back to my dadi-betel: I learnt that she was widowed shortly after her marriage, without issue, and she came to live in Curepipe at her brother’s place when I was still a kid way back towards the end of the 1940s. So we had known her from the time we were that high and she was part of the family.
When I was leaving for my medical studies in 1965, she told me that I would not see her when I came back. A number of times until then, I remember her saying, ‘why doesn’t God take me away.’ I never asked her the reason(s) for this, although I presume there must have been internal suffering that she couldn’t or wouldn’t express openly. But she was there when I returned in 1972, and in spite of repeating the same thing to me every time I travelled, including for my specialist studies, she was still there when I got back!
It was in 1981 that she left us, after she had stumbled in the night and sustained a fracture of the hip, and for complex medical reasons became semiconscious within the next 48 hours or so. When I was called to see her and told her that she would need to be operated, she exclaimed, ‘Never! I don’t want to be taken to hospital ever, I have told you that many times!’ That decision was left for me alone to take, and I chose to respect her wish – at last. After all, she was nearly 83 or so years old, had lived a full life in spite of her own internal suffering unbeknown to me, and deserved to be released from this wheel of samsara according to the Hindu doctrine.
But some people know when they will leave this world, such as Swamis and yogis. This was the case with Swami Vivekananda and Mahayogi Shri Aurobindo, amongst others. I am sure that there have been equally enlightened people in other traditions who also had premonition or foreknowledge of their departure from this world. Unfortunately common mortals do not possess this faculty – or fortunately, because most of us do not want to accept the reality of death, and we would not be able to live with the foreknowledge of our exit from this world! We will not be able to stand the shock of this knowledge, and will most likely die slowly and miserably a little everyday! Which reminds me of what a great sage, Neem Karoli Baba, said: ‘To see God everywhere you have to have special eyes. Otherwise you can’t stand the shock!’
Close your eyes and think of anything that you would like to remember from your past. You will find that you can visualize something that is not present as a physical object in front of you, and with your eyes closed. How, then, and what, are you ‘seeing’? That, simply put, is what is meant by ‘special eyes.’ But it needs to be understood much more deeply than this of course.
So it’s best for us ordinary guys to simply consider every day a bonus, especially when we have become senior citizens, and live every moment fully and as joyfully as possible. Oh, but we do not have to wait to be of third age to do that, surely! So why not everybody think of everyday, every moment as a bonus, and live the moment fully?
A good time to start is now, as matter of fact. So folks, get going…
* Published in print edition on 22 March 2013