Hats off to Robert Butler

When I told my brother Jarratt that I was starting to write about aging, he said, “I know this guy Bob Butler.  Want an introduction?”  I sure did.  The pioneering gerontologist died yesterday.  Butler was generous with preliminary advice, illuminating in a formal interview (he qualified, after all, as an octogenarian hard at work), magnanimous despite my lack of formal credentials, and unfailingly kind. Jarratt lives in New Mexico and had sold the Butlers some land there, and Bob never failed to inquire after him.

During our formal interview I asked Butler what had surprised him about the aging process as he himself grew older.  “Nothing,” he replied. The only thing is that I think one becomes less uneasy about death. I don’t know if that’s a surprise or not. You don’t become more afraid because you’re growing closer to death.  At least I haven’t. When I was in the war at the tail end of World War II, since I knew everything and was invulnerable, there was no fear of death. I’d say that in the middle years I became more conscious of death. In fact Schopenhauer always said midlife is that point in time of life when you begin to think backwards from death instead of forward from birth, which I thought was a pretty shrewd observation.”

Butler seemed in fine form at last month’s Age Boom Academy, and I’m glad he went out with his boots on, so to speak.  He was a tireless champion of human rights for people of all ages.  I’m lucky to have known him, and sad he is gone.

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