Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: An Artist’s Bittersweet Legacy of Real Wisdom from Strangers Ages 7 to 88
By Maria Popova
“Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” So goes an ancient Tibetan meditation, intended to use our mortality as a clarifying force of guidance in how we live our lives. A modern-day take on this question was at the heart of a wonderful project by artist and curator Susan O’Malley, who asked a hundred ordinary people between the ages of seven and eighty-eight what advice their 80-year-old selves would give to their present-day selves.
Just as the answers — some profound, some playful, all disarmingly sincere — began appearing across the San Francisco Bay Area in O’Malley’s public art installations, an unforgiving testament to the very premise of the project struck: One winter Wednesday, 38-year-old O’Malley fell unconscious and died a week before she was due to deliver the twin girls with whom she was pregnant; despite the emergency C-section, the babies also perished.
The shock of the tragedy reverberated across the Bay Area and beyond as O’Malley, a centripetal force of the local creative community, was grieved by her husband Tim and her extended family of friends. It also rendered her project, now published as Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88 (public library), a powerful and bittersweet piece of legacy, lending each of the responses the sudden immediacy of perspective and poignancy.
O’Malley writes in the introduction:
It’s easy to forget how wise we can be. We resist our internal wisdom due to any number of reasons, such as fear, fatigue, or inconvenience. We race through our hyperactive lives, so busy with the details of day-to-day living that we end up feeling disconnected from ourselves and each other. But what’s great about the 80-year-old self is that no matter how frantic we get, she is always readily available to us. She is present within each of us, reminding us we can be the best version of ourselves, not through some colossal effort at personal reinvention, but simply by slowing down. We just have to take a moment to pay attention and listen.
I started this project because I needed to listen to my 80-year-old self. At the time, I spent sleepless nights wondering, Should I leave my grown-up job with a paycheck and benefits to pursue my artistic passions? This ongoing dream felt terribly irresponsible, scary, and uncharted. But with the rapid illness of my mom, who was only in her 60s at the time, life suddenly felt too short not to take a risk. How would I feel at 80 if I did, or did not, make this choice? Before I had the courage to truly take the leap though, I turned to the words of strangers to help me navigate the way.
Eighty, to be sure, is a peculiar precipice of wisdom — it was at precisely eighty that Oliver Sacks looked back on the measure of living, Henry Miller examined the secret of vitality, and Donald Hall considered the meaning of aging. But there is something singularly commanding about the imaginary 80-year-old self, the figment of a future we tend to see as a guarantee rather than a grace. One is suddenly forced to consider how many of O’Malley’s respondents — how many of us, really — will never live to be eighty, and by what cruelly arbitrary cosmic odds these outcomes are decided.
The book’s dedication, which O’Malley wrote shortly before her death, is almost unbearably heartbreaking in light of the darkness that followed:
Today, until we’re 80, and then some.
Complement Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self, which benefits the Susan O’Malley Memorial Fund for the Arts supporting emerging artists, with Candy Chang’s global public art project Before I Die, then revisit Maya Angelou’s beautiful letter of advice to her younger self and Martha Nussbaum’s advice to the young.
Images courtesy of Chronicle Books
Published January 18, 2016