Growing Old Gracefully Among the Wreckage

News reports tell us that the last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died recently at age 110.  He was, apparently, an extraordinary man not only for his longevity, but also for his positive energy.  Mr. Buckles had reasons to be bitter about life, yet somehow managed to overcome the negative events of his life and retain his dignity to the end.

I am sometimes amazed when I talk to young people about World War I and find out how little they know about “the war to end all wars.”  It started in August 1914, shortly after the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo.  Austria made demands on Serbia that the small nation would not accept; Russia supported Serbia; Germany supported the Austrians; France and Britain sided with Russia and before the conflict ended, more than 16 million people were killed and another 21 million wounded.  The U.S. did not enter the war until 1917, and Frank Buckles became a very young ambulance driver who saw many things I’m sure he wished to forget.  He probably could never have imagined when the war ended in 1918 that the beginning of the next world war would be only a little more than 20 years away.

Following WWI, Mr. Buckles began working for steamship companies and found himself in Manila at the time the city fell to the Japanese during World War II.  He spent the rest of that war in a Japanese concentration camp until he was freed in 1945.  The brutality and deprivation of the Japanese camps is well documented, and many people died as a result of their internment.  Frank Buckles survived and went on to live another 65 years that included actively farming through age 104.

We are told that our genes are the most important variables determining the length of our lives, and I have no reason to doubt that conclusion.  I also do not doubt that our attitudes are the most important variable determining the quality of our lives.  Why some people are blessed with the ability to overcome adversity while others are not is a question that continues to inspire inquiry and research.  Marriage, faith, diet, exercise, and education are often cited as important choices people can make to build their resilience.

People like Frank Buckles remind me that we have the opportunity to live long and fulfilling lives despite the inevitable challenges we have to face and overcome.  Some of us will lose our opportunity due to circumstances we can’t control, but there are many positive examples to inspire us to keep on trying.