Today, a movie star uses the Gift of Age. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Something there is about
being over 60. For one thing, the end of life
starts coming into view. I used to ask older
friends what it meant to be no longer young. They
usually gave me fuzz -- stuff like, "You're only as
old as you feel."
Then last Fall I found an article by Audrey Hepburn.
Down through the years I'd watched Hepburn's
exquisite face on the screen. Now that face was
lined -- and more compelling than ever.
As spokesm'n for The Children's International
Emergency Fund, she'd been to Somalia. She'd been
with death, filth, and suffering. The rescue was
still being thwarted by chaos and corruption --
thwarted by the very starvation it tried to stem.
Hepburn, who'd known hunger as a child in
German-occupied Belgium, wrote, "I keep sane by
saying it is not my job to solve all the problems."
She couldn't heal all the pain in the country or
even all the pain in one tent. So she closed her
mind to the vastness of this ocean of pain. She
spent her last years doing what she could do. And
that proved to be a great deal.
Hepburn spoke with a voice of Age that made sense.
She was resigned. She was beyond ambition and
beyond fear. Now I know that she was living under a
death sentence from cancer.
And I see what my elders wouldn't admit. It was how
little they had to lose. The world is still filled
with good things and possibility. But good is there
to admire, not to possess. There's little to lose
because there's nothing you can keep -- not
possessions, not prestige, not even life itself.
Still, most of us react to Age with caution instead
of abandon! Yesterday at lunch a friend said, "You
have to look at Hepburn's whole life. She came out
of WW-II willing to take chances. She danced to her
own drum. If you risk only when there's nothing
left to lose, that's cheap."
And so it is. Having nothing to lose is the Gift of
Age. But it's a Gift we can't claim if we've
trained ourselves to lives of caution. If I don't
invent when risk is dangerous, how can I be
creative when risk is gone?
Last week, Hepburn died. In her last days she made
us see the plight of those children -- a plight
that'd once been her own. She finished her life
working calmly, with utter determination, and
without avarice or ambition.
They hardly mentioned her film career at the
funeral. In the end her true beauty was writ in her
freedom and the healing that flowed from it. She'd
understood creative risk from the start. That's the
whole reason she was able to use her life so well
-- when she finally had nothing left to lose.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hepburn, A., Unforgettable Silence.
Newsweek, October 26, 1992, p. 10.
Humbert, C., Audrey Hepburn Dies of Colon Cancer at
63. (Associated Press) Houston Post,
Thursday, Jan. 21, 1993, pp. 1 & 17.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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