THE VIRTUES OF AGING
By Jimmy Carter
Library of Contemporary Thought/Ballantine, $18.85; paperback, $9.95
Reviewed by JOHN A. CUTTER
Former President Jimmy Carter says late in The Virtues of Aging that he tried to keep biblical references to a minimum in this book. He doesn't explain why, although it is a surprise, since Carter has the comfortable clarity of heart of a true believer.
But one passage he quotes from Ecclesiastes sums up his advice for aging successfully, indeed, for living well at any age: "Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the cloud will not reap."
As a peanut farmer, Carter sensed that was bad advice. What farmer wouldn't watch the weather? But, as he writes, "I finally realized that the writer was saying: "Don't be too cautious; take a chance! If you wait for perfect conditions, you may end up living a timid and diminished life.' "
Carter, in this fine, thoughtful book, says he found it hard to take that advice when he was voted out of office at age 56. He and his wife, Rosalynn, struggled with a common problem of retirees, a feeling their most productive years were behind them.
He finds himself staring at a most disturbing questions: "What was I going to do with the next 25 years?"
Most people would say the Carters have done a lot. Both are active building houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, as well as teaching and lecturing on various issues. Carter crosses the globe as a peace negotiator, and both are published, best-selling authors.
There are many books on the shelves these days offering advice on how to age well. Many tackle the issue with health advice, but Carter comes at it more like a preacher _ or politician _ seeking to inspire others.
This is a small book, about 140 pages, and more like a long magazine article. (Thankfully, it is published in paperback as well as hardcover.) Yet, Carter manages to pack it with information, advice, a few too many platitudes, and even some helpful phone numbers.
Never does Carter fail to bring home the idea that despite his status as a former president, he found himself struggling with the same issues as everyday seniors, from filling his time with worthy activities to exercising to maintaining passion in his married life. In a wonderful passage that opens the book, Carter recalls the first time he was offered a senior discount not long after leaving office. " "Your bill ain't no mistake, Mr. President,' " a diner patron explains when Carter says he was undercharged for his breakfast. " "Before eight o'clock they give free coffee to senior citizens.' "
The book is part of a series from the Library of Contemporary Thought, which says the goal of the books is "to say things that need saying." It isn't so much that Carter has new things to say about aging and retirement, which he says is a time to "continue to learn, grow, and adopt new challenges."
It's that he says them well, with the credibility of someone who is living his words.
This is a good book to read before the memory fades of 77-year-old Sen. John Glenn's smiling face and thumbs-up sign as he rode the shuttle back into space and our hearts. Like Glenn, Carter is an inspiration, and a role model for an emerging redefinition of what it means to be old.
John Cutter, the former elder affairs writer fot the Times, is currently at work on a book.