Roger Angell: Resilience Personified

Roger Angell

Roger Angell died this past May at 101. A renowned essayist, Angell had a distinguished career as a writer and longstanding fiction editor at the New Yorker. He was best known as a sportswriter, especially for his keen insights on that great American pastime, baseball.

Yet, upon news of his death, the word “resilience” popped into my mind and I thought about the famous essay he wrote on aging for the New Yorker in February 2014 at age 93. Rereading “This Old Man,” I am convinced striving to build resilience—the theme of my book ENLIGHTENED AGING: Building RESILIENCE—for a long, active life makes sense. But aging well over a long life also involves acceptance, equanimity, avoiding resentment, and viewing aging as a positive.  Angell says his biggest surprise was the need for deep attachment and intimate relationships as we age.

“This Old Man” begins with a laundry list of maladies and losses: Arthritis with painful, loose joints; macular degeneration; daily need for Tylenol for pain following shingles; arterial stents and a hole in his heart; back and knee deformities so he now resembles Geppetto.

Angell says he’s “endured a few knocks and missed worse,” then shares a long (and incomplete) list of friends, teachers, acquaintances, and others from his life who are now gone. Tragedies include the unexpected suicide of his daughter, Callie, and death of his second wife after 48 years of marriage.

Surviving what he calls “long odds,” to reach 93, Angell’s grateful. “I’m not dead and not yet mindless,” he says. But Angell acknowledges that a downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten years and that “the accruing weight of the losses don’t bury us.”

He notes that he’s still working and has stuff “I get excited or depressed about.” Angell especially recounts the value of friends and pleasant events, past and present, experienced over his remarkable 75 plus years of adult life.

Angell writes about the constant need for more venery—more love, more romance, more sex. In the end he cites that getting to such an old age was the second biggest surprise of a long life. The first biggest surprise was an increasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.

“This Old Man’s” honesty certainly reflects Angell’s resilience. And I was struck at how he accepted aging with equanimity. He did not deny that aging brings losses and physical changes we would choose not to experience. He did not succumb to resentment. Instead, Angell accepted change and found a course—an ability to adjust that allows one to carry on in the face of adversity. I wonder if he was familiar with the “Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, is the author, with Joan DeClaire, of Enlightened Aging. He is the founding principal investigator of the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, ongoing for about 30 years. ACT recently was awarded a $55.6 million expansion grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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