Paul Erdös used to say that mathematicians “die” when they retire or cease to do math; when they physically die they simply “leave.” Well, my father wasn’t a mathematician but he did leave last night.
Alex Basch was born in December of 1940, which made him 71. He was the son of a prominent surgeon, and he became a doctor himself. He practiced brain surgery early on, but he didn’t enjoy it so he became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He continued to practice this profession until the last minute of his life.
Given today’s liberal use of the word entrepreneur, you could say that my father was one. He started his most recent company a few years ago. It’s a halfway house in Buenos Aires, and it’s doing well. As it turns out, next week I’ll have to sit down with his co-founders and help figure out the transition.
Alex and I became very close as adults, and we could discuss matters that nobody else in our family can relate to. He told me last year that the halfway house was proving to be too much work for a man in his early 70s, but he still enjoyed it. He had the option to retire and do whatever, but that didn’t appeal to him. He genuinely enjoyed helping others, and the satisfaction he derived from it was something he wasn’t willing to give up.
During many years he worked with terminal patients and their families, to help them deal in the best possible way with the immediacy of death. That was intense, and I asked him how he was able to do it. He didn’t know. Somebody had to, and it turned out that he could.
I last spoke with my dad at 1:36 pm on Friday, according to my cellphone. It was a mundane conversation. He was doing fine after having had some health issues in February, making travel plans, and generally trying to enjoy life. He was as sharp as ever, he never got to face the loss of cognitive faculties that comes with old age.
One thing that my dad and I agreed upon is that the concept of “retirement” didn’t make any sense to either of us. If you are lucky enough that your profession is fulfilling, and if you feel you’re making a contribution to the world, why stop if you don’t have to.
Obviously not everyone is as lucky as we are, as the vast majority of the world has no choice but to work shitty jobs. Nevertheless, the concept of being able to afford doing nothing for decades of your life while in good health is a relatively new invention of rich societies. I wonder what would happen if “rich retirees” were incentivized to continue contributing to society in ways that didn’t let them get too comfortable. There’s evidence that as we age, cognitive ability decreases much more rapidly if we stop pushing our boundaries and trying to learn new things. It might be a win/win: stay sharp, add value to the world.
Of course this is pure speculation, and I don’t want to succumb to the “single-data-point” fallacy. My dad was not an average person. Not only he was very wise and smart, but also he managed to do something that I think is very hard: enjoy life to the fullest while being a kind person and helping others. I can only hope that just like him I’ll never retire, and that I will be able to find the balance between living a healthy life and doing fulfilling work.
Here’s to you, dad.
RIP Alex Basch, 12/10/1940 – 6/26/2012.
Update: don’t know if this is Hacker-News-worthy, but a friend submitted it in case you want to comment there.