Age Appropriate

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.

— Mae West

In an old Twilight Zone episode, an elderly couple is on a shopping expedition to trade in their old clunker for a new model. Only they aren’t at a car dealership. John and Marie Holt are in a medical center where for $5,000 you can swap your old body for a young one. Mr. Holt is in poor health and in great pain. He and his wife both plan to trade in their tired, old bodies. The only trouble is that they only have $5,000 between them (real money those days). So Mr. Holt tries to double his money in a high-stakes poker game. He is on the verge of losing everything when another card player learns the reason for his desperate ploy and allows him to win back his $5,000.

That still leaves the Holts $5,000 short. So Mr. Holt trades in his pain-wracked body for a younger model with the idea that he will earn the money he needs to get a new one for his wife as well. But Mrs. Holt takes one look at the grinning young stud who stands before her and recoils in horror. What has become of her husband? In the end, Mr. Holt exercises a clause in his contract that enables him to cancel the deal and return to his old body. In his closing narration, Rod Serling quotes a line from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: “Love gives not but itself and takes not from itself, love possesses not nor would it be possessed, for love is sufficient unto love.” He then intones, “Not a lesson, just a reminder, from all the sentimentalists in the Twilight Zone.”

This old Twilight Zone episode came to mind when I got to thinking recently about living my life over again. I was 15 years old when the episode first aired in 1962, younger even than the young stud whose body John Holt briefly occupied. I am now older than the actor who played the elderly Holt.* Although I am in better health than the character he played, I am not free of the normal wear and tear that besets those who have been around for a good long while. Would I be tempted to trade in my creaky old body for a new one? More to the point, would I want to live my life over again?

The Twilight Zone episode was set in the indefinite future. Whenever it was supposed take place, we haven’t arrived there yet. Nowadays, of course, people can swap out various body parts or even defective organs. Mr. Holt might have benefitted from knee or hip replacement surgery, and there is no lack of pain medications on the market. But you still can’t visit a showroom to pick out a brand new body. So we have not yet faced the question of whether that would be a wise move, even if we had the technical wherewithal to do it.

There is no lack of old fools who try to act younger than they are. They drive sporty cars and cavort with women half their age. They tend to attract ridicule because they don’t look the part they are trying to play. But what if they did? Hard to say. If they are still old fools inside a young fool’s body, they remain fools. One of the compensations of age, I’ve discovered, is that you tend to make fewer foolish mistakes as you gain experience in life. To the extent that you are judged by appearances, it helps both to look and to act the part if you wish to be taken seriously.

But what about actually living your life over again? Who among us has not said, “If I had it do over again…” — usually as a prelude to wishing we could fix some past mistake. But beyond a bit of selective past-life intervention to improve our circumstances today, would we really want a full do-over? Youth may indeed be wasted on the young, but why waste it on a stale re-run? Sure, we might bring life experience we didn’t have the first time around, but we would thereby deprive ourselves of all that is most attractive about the young: their innocence, exuberance and sense of discovery. There is a first time for everything, but not when you’ve done it all before.

There is much to be said for living our lives only once, start to finish. Sure, we might be tempted to trade in our pain-wracked bodies for a newer model if we were old and sick, like Mr. Holt. But sooner or later we would exhaust the possibilities if we were forever young or even forever middle-aged. I find I can revisit those ages vicariously any time I choose as a parent and a grandparent. And as any grandparent will happily tell you, you can always hand your grandkids back to their parents when they fuss or need changing.

I find the old cliche about life being a classroom holds true. But what is the point if life has nothing left to teach you? From time to time we have all felt as young Hamlet did that the world is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. But then, unless we are serving a lifetime prison sentence, some new possibility usually presents itself. I have found this to be true even in old age. Old age itself remains unexplored territory until you are old. Yes, it has its disadvantages, as does any age. The main one, I guess, is that you die at the end. But just as you only live once, you also die only once. And -- who knows? — and even that may be approached with a sense of discovery.

* The part was played by Joseph Schildkraut a former silent-screen star who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Schildkraut died in 1964 at age 67.

Twilight Zone, “The Trade-Ins” (1962), written by Rod Serling

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