I’ve been wrestling lately with some extra pounds that have me worried—and are changing the way I worry about worrying. Why? Because I’ve just read Cracking the Aging Code: The New Science of Growing Old and What It Means for Staying Young, by theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf PhD and science writer Dorian Sagan [read my article on this here]. The book suggests that putting on weight signals the body that the world is safe and food is plentiful. (That’s the good news.) Alas, the bad news is that the population could now grow too rapidly and overwhelm the food supply; therefore, those extra pounds signal a good time for older folks like me to make room for the young. As in, die. Yikes!
That’s, in part, why taking it easy and eating a lot doesn’t make one grow stronger like a redwood: Instead, everything falls apart, easing us out—for the good of the group. Meanwhile, vigorous exercise, near starvation, and plenty of worry signal the body that times are tough, too many people are dying, and we need to keep going, no matter what—for the good of the group.
This “demographic theory of aging” only makes scientific sense if one believes that evolution has evolved over time beyond the me-centered, selfish gene toward group evolution. I’ve tried grudgingly to go along with the selfish gene—that every person is an island—but each of us is a bus carrying a trillion symbiotic passengers, and of course we’re ultimately a swarm of particles. So I find it hard to glorify selfishness as ordained by evolution when the self is so elusive and when we’re so intimately connected to everything. Group evolution seems both accurate and a better way to think about living.
All this points to the heart of this issue: how to be an elder and how to deal with grief. We have an excerpt called “7 Steps to Becoming an Elder” from Thomas Moore’s wonderfully wise new book, Ageless Soul. We also have Leah Lamb’s grand adventure with “Griefwalker” Stephen Jenkinson, titled “Find the Good in Grief.” The overall point of these two wise teachers is that being an elder is not about kicking back and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor—and it’s certainly not about wallowing in sadness or regret. That’s not what wise elders have ever done. (And if that’s what we choose to do, our own genes will try to ease us out quickly.) We want to be active and engaged—worried!—and then our bodies will do their best to keep us in the game.
Why worry? [To] be happy!