The Measure of a Life Well Lived: Henry Miller on Growing Old, the Perils of Success, and the Secret of Remaining Young at Heart
By Maria Popova
“On how one orients himself to the moment,” 48-year-old Henry Miller (December 26, 1891–June 7, 1980) wrote in reflecting on the art of living in 1939, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Over the course of his long life, Miller sought ceaselessly to orient himself toward maximal fruitfulness, from his creative discipline to his philosophical reflections to his exuberant irreverence.
More than three decades later, shortly after his eightieth birthday, Miller wrote a beautiful essay on the subject of aging and the key to living a full life. It was published in 1972 in an ultra-limited-edition chapbook titled On Turning Eighty (public library), alongside two other essays. Only 200 copies were printed, numbered and signed by the author.
Miller begins by considering the true measure of youthfulness:
If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” … If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.
He later adds:
I have very few friends or acquaintances my own age or near it. Though I am usually ill at ease in the company of elderly people I have the greatest respect and admiration for two very old men who seem to remain eternally young and creative. I mean [the Catalan cellist and conductor] Pablo Casals and Pablo Picasso, both over ninety now. Such youthful nonagenarians put the young to shame. Those who are truly decrepit, living corpses, so to speak, are the middle-aged, middleclass men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever or else are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelters to wait it out.
If you have had a successful career, as presumably I have had, the late years may not be the happiest time of your life. (Unless you’ve learned to swallow your own shit.) Success, from the worldly standpoint, is like the plague for a writer who still has something to say. Now, when he should be enjoying a little leisure, he finds himself more occupied than ever. Now he is the victim of his fans and well wishers, of all those who desire to exploit his name. Now it is a different kind of struggle that one has to wage. The problem now is how to keep free, how to do only what one wants to do.
He goes on to reflect on how success affects people’s quintessence:
One thing seems more and more evident to me now — people’s basic character does not change over the years… Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or short-comings. The brilliant guys at school often turn out to be not so brilliant once they are out in the world. If you disliked or despised certain lads in your class you will dislike them even more when they become financiers, statesmen or five star generals. Life forces us to learn a few lessons, but not necessarily to grow.
Somewhat ironically, Anaïs Nin — Miller’s onetime lover and lifelong friend — once argued beautifully for the exact opposite, the notion that our personalities are fundamentally fluid and ever-growing, something that psychologists have since corroborated.
Miller returns to youth and the young as a kind of rearview mirror for one’s own journey:
You observe your children or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time — and perhaps still are.
Like George Eliot, who so poignantly observed the trajectory of happiness over the course of human life, Miller extols the essential psychoemotional supremacy of old age:
At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure…
I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity.
And therein lies Miller’s spiritual center — the life-force that stoked his ageless inner engine:
Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me…
With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder. No matter how restricted my world may become I cannot imagine it leaving me void of wonder. In a sense I suppose it might be called my religion. I do not ask how it came about, this creation in which we swim, but only to enjoy and appreciate it.
Two years later, Miller would come to articulate this with even more exquisite clarity in contemplating the meaning of life, but here he contradicts Henry James’s assertion that seriousness preserves one’s youth and turns to his other saving grace — the capacity for light-heartedness as an antidote to life’s often stifling solemnity:
Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gaiety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face.
Equally important, Miller argues, is countering the human compulsion for self-righteousness. In a sentiment Malcolm Gladwell would come to complement nearly half a century later in advocating for the importance of changing one’s mind regularly, Miller writes:
With advancing age my ideals, which I usually deny possessing, have definitely altered. My ideal is to be free of ideals, free of principles, free of isms and ideologies. I want to take to the ocean of life like a fish takes to the sea…
I no longer try to convert people to my view of things, nor to heal them. Neither do I feel superior because they appear to be lacking in intelligence.
Miller goes on to consider the brute ways in which we often behave out of self-righteousness and deformed idealism:
One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless… I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in ways that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.
But despite observing these lamentable human tendencies, Miller remains an optimist at heart. He concludes by returning to the vital merriment at the root of his life-force:
My motto has always been: “Always merry and bright.” Perhaps that is why I never tire of quoting Rabelais: “For all your ills I give you laughter.” As I look back on my life, which has been full of tragic moments, I see it more as a comedy than a tragedy. One of those comedies in which while laughing your guts out you feel your inner heart breaking. What better comedy could there be? The man who takes himself seriously is doomed…
There is nothing wrong with life itself. It is the ocean in which we swim and we either adapt to it or sink to the bottom. But it is in our power as human beings not to pollute the waters of life, not to destroy the spirit which animates us.
The most difficult thing for a creative individual is to refrain from the effort to make the world to his liking and to accept his fellow man for what he is, whether good, bad or indifferent.
The entire On Turning Eighty chapbook, which includes two other essays, is a sublime read. Complement it with Miller on writing, altruism, the meaning of life, what creative death means, and his 11 commandments of writing.
Published June 26, 2014