People prefer life over death, unless other preferences are unfulfilled to such an extent that living is no longer preferable.
Longevity encompasses all our preferences in the dimension of time. Often people say that they would not care to live to an unusually old age; yet generally when people reach an advanced age, they prefer to continue living. An exception is when an elderly person is ill, with little or no hope of improvement; but then, a younger person may wish to die under similar life circumstances.
Some people have continued to be productive and apparently happy to the age of 100 or more. They include composer Elliott Carter, songwriter Irving Berlin, pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, actor-producer-playwright-director-screenwriter George Abbott, actor Kirk Douglas, comedian George Burns, actor Norman Lloyd, actress Gloria Stuart, actress Ellen Albertini Dow, actress Connie Sawyer, actress Luise Rainer, author Beverly Cleary, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, artist Grandma Moses, and banker-philanthropist David Rockefeller.
Bump it down to age ninety, and we get a list that includes President John Adams, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, jazz pianist Eubie Blake, composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, author Ray Bradbury, journalist Ben Bradlee, jurist William Brennan, cellist Pablo Casals, painter Marc Chagall, culinary figure Julia Child, prime minister Winston Churchill, composer Aaron Copland, journalist and news anchor Walter Cronkite, surgeon Michael DeBakey, educator-philosopher John Dewey, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, philosopher Thomas Hobbes, jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., card-game icon Edmond Hoyle, social activist Mother Jones, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, painter Georgia O’Keefe, chemist Linus Pauling, painter-sculptor Pablo Picasso, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, philosopher Bertrand Russell, humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, folk singer Pete Seeger, playwright George Bernard Shaw, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Not all of us will live so long as these notable people, or accomplish so much, but may their examples guide and inspire us.
- Bruce Grierson, What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives (Henry Holt, 2014): “Since she began her track and field career, Ms. Kotelko has rarely remained still, and that active lifestyle may be more important than her workouts at the track.”
- Steven Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer (Riverhead, 2021): “ In rich countries, life expectancy at birth hit 40 by 1880, 50 by 1900, 60 by 1930, 70 by 1960, and 80 by 2010. The rest of the world is catching up.”
- El Greco, (presumed to be El Greco) Portrait of an Old Man (c. 1600)
- Anthony van Dyck, Profile Study of a Bearded Old Man (early 1600s)
- Anthony van Dyck, Study Head of an Old Man with a White Beard (1617-20)
- Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of an Old Man with Beard (1885)
- Ilya Repin, Study of an Old Man (1878)
- Rembrandt van Rijn, An Old Man in Red (1652-54)
- Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Woman Reading
- Guido Reni, Portrait of Old Woman (1630)
- Vincent van Gogh, An Old Woman of Arles (1888)
- Lucas Cranch the Elder, The Infatuated Old Woman (1520)
- Giorgione, The Old Woman (1505)
- David Burliuk, Fifty-thousand Years Old Woman on Mars (1922)
Film and Stage
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Josef Suk, Asrael, symphony for large orchestra in C Minor, Op. 27 (Symphony No. 2) (1906) (approx. 55-65 minutes), is an extended musical essay on life and death, in five movements: (1) the struggle between life and death; (2) loss; (3) a dance of life and a savage dance of death; (4) a musical portrait of the composer’s wife, who died shortly before the composition; and (5) “what is the point of living?” The work is titled after the angel of death in some versions of Western monotheism. Top performances are conducted by Talich in 1952, Ančerl in 1967, Kubelik in 1981, Pešek in 1990, Bělohlávek in 1991, Mackerras in 2007 ***, Ashkenazy in 2008, Bělohlávek in 2008, and Bělohlávek in 2014.
- Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)
- Variations for Orchestra (1955)
- Double Concerto (1961)
- Concerto for Orchestra (1969)
- String Quartet No. 2
- String Quartet No. 5
- A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976)
- Three Occasions for Orchestra (1986-89)
- Clarinet Concerto (1996)
- Cello Concerto (2000)
- Asko Concerto (2000)
- Triple Duo
- Flute Concerto
- Kaleiido, “Voyage”, like a life moving in time
- Though longevity is an intrinsic value, James Salter illustrates it as a virtue, and through his narrative, in All That Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), published when the author was 87 years old.
Spring and Summer, Fall and Winter and Spring, /After each other drifting, past my window drifting! /And I lay so many years watching them drift and counting / The years till a terror came in my heart at times, / With the feeling that I had become eternal; / at last My hundredth year was reached! / And still I lay Hearing the tick of the clock, and the low of cattle / And the scream of a jay flying through falling leaves! / Day after day alone in a room of the house / Of a daughter-in-law stricken with age and gray. / And by night, or looking out of the window by day My thought ran back, it seemed, through infinite time / To North Carolina and all my girlhood days, / And John, my John, away to the war with the British, / And all the children, the deaths, and all the sorrows. / And that stretch of years like a prairie in Illinois / Through which great figures passed like hurrying horsemen, / Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Webster, Clay. / O beautiful young republic for whom my John and I / Gave all of our strength and love! / And O my John! / Why, when I lay so helpless in bed for years, / Praying for you to come, was your coming delayed? / Seeing that with a cry of rapture, like that I uttered / When you found me in old Virginia after the war, / I cried when I beheld you there by the bed, / As the sun stood low in the west growing smaller and fainter / In the light of your face!
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Peter Kater & Nawang Khechog, Ocean of Long Life