At 84, famous Canadian film director Norman Jewison proves growing old is no excuse for inaction.
Two of my friends recently turned 40. Both moaned and groaned, filled with angst at this symbolic rite of passage. As I was reflecting on their reactions (which, while I did not want to appear unsympathetic, secretly amused me), I read The Globe and Mail’s profile of 84-year-old Norman Jewison. The famous Canadian film director (Moonstruck, Rollerball, The Thomas Crowne Affair, The Statement, In the Heat of the Night, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, and so many more) and founder of the Canadian Film Centre was the subject of a 13-film retrospective in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival this month, hard on the heels of a tribute (“Relentless Renegade: The Films of Norman Jewison”) put forth by the Manhattan Film Society of Lincoln Center in May. But Jewison, the master of genres from science-fiction, musicals, social-issue dramas, and courtroom satires to westerns and even children’s television shows is still full of new projects. As he told The Globe’s James Adams, he’s not ready for “a swan song.” Jewison’s attitude toward life is one to which we should all aspire.
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I think we have an enormous say in our own destinies. When we allow circumstances and social norms to determine who we are, we are bound to suffer. Of course, it is important to feel that we can meet our basic needs, and that we are loved. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs remains a very useful paradigm to examine how humans cope with life and survival. It seems logical that if you are hungry and thirsty, or out in the cold without shelter, ideas of self-actualization through a fulfilling career or creative production are very remote. But my friends who were so apprehensive about turning 40 are well-fed and have loving families. What made them so anxious about turning an age that is, after all, just an arbitrary number? What makes some people think their lives are over at 40, while others are full of energy and projects in their mid-80s?
When I was in my mid-30s, I had dinner with a friend in Chicago who, at the time, was turning 50. In the course of a lively conversation during which I was struck by his enthusiastic outlook on his future, he surprised me with a question that has influenced my life profoundly: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” I think about this often, and it reminds me to live my life as an always-expanding project, with curiosity, self-expression, and joy.
Click here to find out why our aging population is not as costly as we might think.
Among those who inspire me is a remarkable 96-year-old woman – a Holocaust survivor, artist, and close friend whose life has been filled with tragedy and hardship, yet who finds hope and joy in each day. She only recently gave up regular outings, and we visit her frequently. Now largely bound to her nursing home by her physical ailments, her mind and her spirit are unbowed. She continues to inspire all who know her, and to maintain clarity and coherence as she avidly follows world news and communicates with her global network of family and friends through her iPad.
It takes courage to be this deeply engaged with life. It means taking risks: the risk of failing; the risk of being hurt; the risk of losing our investments – financial or otherwise – and needing to start over again; the risk of appearing silly, or of losing the respect, love, or admiration of others. And yet, without this courage, we are only half alive. We miss the thrilling rush of success, of creating something new, and of making a difference in the world, and in the lives of others. We become spectators in our own lives.
In his late 70s, my father is constantly looking for ways to participate in, and contribute to, his community. For a decade, he took care of my ailing mother while undergoing heart surgery himself. When she passed away last year, he took me aside and declared that he would start living again – and he has done just that, travelling to Venice, Toronto, and New York, immersing himself in a routine of social life with friends and family. He shares what he’s doing, and what he wants to do for his next adventure, with great enthusiasm.
Listen to a podcast on how quickly our Canadian population is aging.
No one needs to accept that life is going downhill because of a number on a birth certificate. Above my desk, I keep a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” It is great advice to live by, and it has inspired me on many occasions to take greater risks and to express myself more courageously. I am more excited about my life now, at 52, than I have ever been. I never want to be one of those people who spends more time thinking about my glorious past than my exciting future. Like my father, I want, as long as I am physically able, to be up to something – always engaged in the next opportunity, challenge, and adventure.
As for my friends who recently turned 40, I tried to persuade them that this is just the beginning of their prime – that they are young enough, and, at the same time, wise and experienced enough, to start new things, and to pursue their dreams. I could tell that they really wanted to believe what I was saying, but they were still hesitant. I hope they’ll figure it out for themselves and discover, as I have, that we truly can become younger as we are getting older.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.