Somewhere between looking at news videos of an angry mob in Beijing after an Apple store couldn’t open due to safety concerns when it was literally mobbed by thousands waiting for an iPhone 4S and following reports of cruise ship mayhem and chaos I was still able to focus on something newsworthy yet celebratory.
Muhammed Ali and Betty White both celebrated birthdays today. The three-time heavyweight boxing champion celebrated his 70th birthday and seven-time Emmy winner Betty White turned 90! Their reasons for celebrity are well-known and certainly not in question, but what is it about them that may just set them a little apart from many others in public life?
What I know about professional boxing falls into the negative integers column, but as a child I was certainly charmed by the charismatic Muhammed Ali. I easily recall the hub-bub concerning his shift from Cassius Clay and headline controversy when he aligned himself with the Nation of Islam. His refusal in 1967 to serve in the U.S. Army/Vietnam was followed by everyone. Ali was imprisoned, lost his boxing license, and was stripped of his world championship, and it wasn’t until almost four years later that the Supreme Court overturned the conviction and ruled Ali was a conscientious objector, not a criminal. I understood very little of the politics or implications during this period, but Ali was a media and interview magnate and I watched him, observed the quick wit and fancy patter–“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and simply understood he was larger-than-life.
And then Happy Birthday to Betty White! I think there is general agreement that despite the focus on her remarkably long public career, her humor and energy has made her almost ageless. At least I can say that I don’t focus on her age at all, but instead marvel and celebrate a woman who at 90 is still working in a demanding career she loves, is dedicated to animal advocacy and is rarely observed without a smile. I have no idea how much of Ms. White’s “real life” corresponds to her outward and public persona, but I would at least applaud a life well-lived and respectfully request that anyone with information that could somehow disabuse me of my belief that her public and private persona are not too far apart…well, I’d rather not know.
I am simply inspired by people who persevere. Longevity can sometimes be admired for more than just the number of years. Both Ali and White have had heaping doses of disappointment in their lives, but they have successfully mixed heartache in with a great deal of resilience. I admire the quality of resilience, and have written about it previously in a post about it here: Elizabeth Edwards.
I think everyone who remembers Ali at the pinnacle of his sport is saddened to see him with physical weakness and the effects of Parkinson’s. Yet his wife, Lonnie, says he still wakes up every day with a smile on his face. What first brought the story of his birthday to my attention was hearing about his choice of birthday present—a pink Rolls Royce. That’s a man who still enjoys life!
Ali is said to have stated, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” The website Look to the Stars records that “Ali has helped serve 232 million meals worldwide. He has hand-delivered food and medical supplies to children in Asia, Africa, and through North, South and Central Americas.” He has strongly supported Special Olympics, Athletes for Hope, UNICEF, and multiple organizations involved in Parkinson’s Disease research.
Ali and White have more than birthdays in common. They have made tremendous efforts to be useful, contributing hundreds of hours to commitments outside of their personal career goals. They made the life choice to be concerned with others and it would seem that these efforts have contributed to being both beloved, and apparently happily embracing age.
Betty’s friends and fellow actors remark about her positive attitude and determination to just “keep going.” Last year the Huffington Post wrote an article about Betty saying that she understands that people dread getting older and romanticize youth. “So many of us start dreading age when we’re in high school. And I think that’s really a waste of a lovely life.” She accentuates the positive, believing that attitude in mind is reflected in the body, and she chooses to celebrate the here-and-now rather than dread the future.
And she, too, observes that “thinking of others rather than yourself” is key to a happy life. White is well-known for her active support with animal charities such as “Actors and Others for Animals” and the Morris Animal Foundation. She is also duly noted for her work at the Los Angeles Zoo, the organization PAWS/LA and is a supporter for St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters, providing needy families with food and drop-in shelter. She hasn’t let age keep her from being an active civic participant.
I have one of those significant birthdays coming up this spring–believe me, you’ll be hearing more about that! But while I consider what it means to hit certain “age-related milestones” I’m really celebrating what two very different–yet similar in attitude– cultural icons can teach us about enjoying life and living life well. They have a lot to teach us if we want to learn!
And I hope that next year we’re also wishing both of these amazing people another very Happy Birthday!
Saluting well-being, Debra