LONDON / The Daily Mail / Femail / April 23, 2011
That's the spirit! The bestseller that believes the warmth of your heart can transform old age
By Bel Mooney
This week the Queen reached the grand age of 85. She’s said to be as happy as she has ever been in her life — and no wonder, with her grandson’s wedding about to breathe new life into the institution she embodies so tirelessly.
Elizabeth II is a perfect example of an octogenarian who — because she leads such a varied life (seeing out one Prime Minister after another and coping with all that life throws her way) — is ageing magnificently without growing old.
It’s an important distinction. Because we have just learned that, according to projections by the Department of Work and Pensions, a quarter of children under 16 today will be able to celebrate their 100th birthday.
People are living longer now than at any time in history. That very fact raises many questions about healthcare, family life, social provisions and so on. A more philosophical question is whether we see it as a punishment or blessing.
That you can age without growing old
is the message of an uplifting book that has taken France by storm and become a surprise bestseller here.
By Marie de Hennezel, a 64-year-old clinical psychologist and expert in palliative care, it has the gloriously poetic title The Warmth Of The Heart Prevents Your Body From Rusting.
The phrase comes from a song popular on the Japanese island Okinawa, which has been nicknamed ‘the island of long life’ by the World Health Organisation.
Okinawans live to a very great age (the oldest being 115) — unless they move away, in which case they are subject to the same deterioration as the rest of us. The mystery is why they are so long-lived.
Of course, their diet must have a lot to do with it: fish, soya, rice, green tea, no sweet food. Contrast that with Britain, where it was revealed this week that 80,000 of us are too fat or too dependent on drugs or alcohol to work.
Many believe, though, that the miraculous longevity and inner youth of the Okinawans stems from an attitude of mind rather than from their diet. There, younger people love and respect the elderly as a ‘treasure’, not a burden, which will obviously affect their own ageing process.
As a community, they help each other, value the spirit, cultivate serenity and live actively. In other words, they do all the things we should do. Their song (the title of Marie de Hennezel’s book) celebrates the power of the human heart to transform life, old age — and death too.
But let me tell you how I came to possess the book, since the story itself contains a lesson about ageing.
My retired friend Jeff, 66, read about it somewhere and downloaded it (no ‘old fogeys’ here, please note!) to his Kindle.
As he read, he thought of how much I would love Marie de Hennezel’s work, so he immediately rode his powerful BMW motorcycle (bought just a couple of years ago) to a bookshop.
He then came six miles to my house with his gift. I was out — but no matter. That man’s life-spirit, his spontaneity, generosity and sense of adventure have now taken him on a three-month sailing trip (his first) to the other side of the world with a friend.
Last Saturday, at his small farewell party, Jeff told me that he had no idea whether he would like it and knew that sometimes he would wish himself back home, but explained: ‘Well, you have to try these things! It’s gotta be done!’
He may gain more years on the clock, but that man will never grow old. In contrast, I recently listened to another friend, aged 67, bewailing what the poet T.S.Eliot called ‘the gifts reserved for age... as body and soul begin to fall asunder’.
She listed all the negatives: the aches and pains, the not being able to do what you once took for granted, the irritation at the state of the world, in full knowledge that it’s all going to get worse, and so on.
‘It’s not dying that bothers me,’ she said, ‘it’s the thought of going on and on and on!’
It so happens that this still-beautiful woman witnessed (many years ago now) the lingering, undignified demise of her mother with dementia, which goes a long way to explain her horror.
Of course, it would be dishonest to pretend that a positive mental attitude can compensate for the more depressing aspects of ageing. It can’t — or at least, not completely.
Marie de Hennezel confesses that there was a time when she wished to abandon ‘such a depressing subject’. Her book does not shy away from discussing loneliness, neglect, suicidal sorrow and physical decay.
Most people over 60 experience the terrible moment when you catch your reflection unexpectedly and wonder who on earth that grimacing old biddy is. Horror — it’s me! That’s the moment when you mourn the loss, not only of your youth, but of the whole self you recognise.
You see your hair disappearing down the plug-hole with your dreams and carry a weight around your midriff as heavy as your heart and read the story of mortality within the lines on your face.
That’s my own experience too, making it inevitable that a part of me agrees with Alexander Chancellor when he writes (in the Mail’s comment pages this week): ‘Excitement at the prospect of living to 100 is somewhat dampened by the thought that it may involve a decade or more of incontinence, blindness, deafness, dementia, or any of the other nasty ailments that old age tends to inflict.’
Yet such a bleakly realistic analysis is flawed in one respect — it concentrates on the physical. It starts from the premise that bodily vigour is the sum total of what is important about human life — and its loss, the greatest catastrophe.
Spring in the step: Staying active is key to happiness in later life
But if that were the case there would be no reason for those brave young men who return from Afghanistan as amputees to fight against truly horrifying disabilities to achieve astonishing things.
Refusing to give in, they climb mountains, literally and figuratively. They overcome despair, transcend mere flesh and become their own courageous spirits.
The message of Marie de Hennezel’s book is that a similar process can happen as we get older. Of course, it won’t if you’re a moaner who gives up before you’ve started — and we all know some people who are grumpy and elderly well before their time.
It’s also harder if your life has left you with a feeling of pessimism, a sense of: ‘What is the point?’ But I could not write this paper’s advice column with an honest heart if I did not believe that it is possible for even such defeated souls to start anew.
De Hennezel gives plenty of specific advice concerning diet and stress (to name but two), but the overwhelming evidence she accumulates from her reading, from her patients and from talking to other experts, is that it’s possible, despite all the negatives, to view old age as ‘a kind of liberation’.
She firmly believes that if you work on ‘developing an inner life’ you can explore ‘emotional youthfulness’.
One of the keys to this process is change. Or rather, believing that we are always changing, forever a part of the great cycle of birth, growth, death and renewal, which we witness all around us, especially at this time of the year when buds are bursting into new life.
On the simplest level, this can take the form of embracing new things — like my friend Jeff with his electronic reader, his motorcycle, his new adventure.
This ties in with the advice that columnists like myself will always give to the lonely or to those trying to start again after divorce, retirement or some other great life change — to join clubs and societies, try things, take up new interests, join a gym, and so on.
No matter how rich or poor you are, educated or not, able-bodied or restricted, you are always free to reinvent yourself within your own mind. Nobody else has control over that. And personally, I do not believe that the mind ever grows truly old; it simply accrues experience.
The crucial distinction here is between the words ‘ageing’ and ‘getting old’. Ageing implies moving forward in life — just as the baby, the toddler, the child, teenager are all ageing. Changing. Becoming something else.
But ‘getting old’ happens when you stick in the mud, denying that you can still move forward.
Ageing is about a never-ending process of development — but you grow old when you stop, when you refuse the renewal of the spirit, which the universe offers, if only you listen and look.
This is my personal belief and why I have been bouncing like Tigger ever since I read Marie de Hennezel’s book.
It confirmed feelings I have had for a long time. Perhaps, particularly, since I witnessed my children’s paternal grandmother at her 90th birthday bash in January 2003, dancing and drinking champagne until the small hours and ever-ready with a fresh question for all the grandchildren and her friends.
Each day her joyful, tolerant, open-minded mind created her life anew. The much-loved matriarch died at the end of 2009, and yet I still feel her spirit, as though she were in the next room.
Influenced by her, I find myself in my 65th year, wondering what change I will embrace next, and rejoicing in a new calm and deep happiness, the like of which I have never experienced before.
This increasing contentment in later life no longer surprises me — just as, I suspect, it will chime with many older readers.
Earlier this year, a team of behavioural research scientists found that human happiness seems to peak not in careworn youth, but at the age of 74.
Yes, it seems older people are in fact much more contented than the young. Of course, I know it’s not true for all too many, but to acknowledge it and to feel sad for them does not negate the truth.
At the heart of the Easter message is the idea of Resurrection, the triumph of Jesus Christ over sin and death. Those who do not share Christian belief will perhaps interpret this idea — and the season — in terms of rebirth and renewal, as other faiths always have, some of them (like Paganism, with its worship of natural cycles) very ancient.
Other words resound with a similar heartbeat: reawakening, renaissance, regeneration. The thought uplifts the heart and I believe that this is the gift reserved for age.
To know that rejuvenation does not lie within a pot of face cream, but in the capacity of the human spirit to stagger afresh from its egg, each and every year, to face all the new dawns we have left.
The Warmth Of The Heart
Prevents Your Body From Rusting
Marie de Hennezel
Copyright: Associated Newspapers Ltd