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3 - Hunza: A People Who Dance in Their Nineties
Exuberance is beauty.
The Abkhasians and the Vilcabambans are not the only people who have long been the topic of stories attributing to them extraordinary longevity and health. There is yet another region that has if anything been the subject of even more fabulous claims, and that also was visited and studied by Dr. Alexander Leaf for National Geographic. This is the fabled land of Hunza.
Hunza lies at the northernmost tip of Pakistan, where Pakistan meets Russia and China. The setting is awe-inspiring in its majesty, for here no fewer than six mountain ranges converge. The average height of the peaks in these mountain ranges is twenty thousand feet, with some, such as Mount Rakaposhi, soaring as high as twenty-five thousand.
The people of Hunza live in an extraordinarily fertile valley that is nestled between rocky ramparts that reach toward the stars. This valley has sustained a population of from ten thousand to thirty thousand people for two thousand years in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Until recently, it was almost totally inaccessible, the only entry or exit for most of the year being an extremely hazardous trail winding through the towering mountains which encircle the Hunza valley. In some places, the trail was only two feet wide. In other places, there were perilously frayed rope bridges to cross. In yet other places, the trail was actually cantilevered out from sheer rock walls on platforms of creaking timbers. The historical degree of isolation is reflected in the fact that the Hunzans, as the people of the region are sometimes called, speak Burushaski, a language with no known relatives.
One of the first things Leaf noticed after he arrived in Hunza was the remarkable good cheer and vitality of the elders he had come to study. Everywhere he went he kept meeting elderly people who were extraordinarily vigorous and who hiked up and down the steep hillsides with what seemed to him amazing ease and agility. Leaf wrote of one elderly gentleman he believed to be 100 years old. The elder
appeared lean and agile and still works breaking rocks for the road. He showed us the iron sledgehammer which he…flourished with ease with one hand.…Coming up the hill from our guest house we were overtaken by three elders who walked up the twenty- or thirty-degree incline without pause or difficulty while we stopped every few steps to catch our breath and quiet our pounding hearts.…[Another elder] served as our porter, shouldering a heavy box of photographic equipment and bounding with it over the forbidding terrain like an agile mountain goat.
UNSURPASSED IN FREEDOM FROM DISEASE
One of the first scientists to comment on the health of the people of Hunza was the British physician Dr. Robert McCarrison. A major general in the Indian Health Service who was later to become India’s director of nutritional research, Dr. McCarrison lectured frequently to the British College of Surgeons and wrote for the British Medical Journal. He became world renowned for his discovery that a disease then inflicting an enormous amount of suffering in India, called “three-day fever,” was caused by the bite of the sand fly.
Shortly after making this historic discovery in the early twentieth century, Dr. McCarrison was assigned by the British Army to establish a hospital and healthcare system for the Hunzans. He lived among them for seven years, tracing family records, conducting daily interviews, performing physical examinations, and keeping meticulous records. The more he learned, the more impressed he was by the health and robustness of the Hunzans.
In particular, he was astounded by the physical and mental status of the very elderly. Dr. McCarrison’s years of careful scrutiny inspired him to describe the health of the Hunzan people in rhapsodic terms:
My own experience provides an example of a (people) unsurpassed in perfection of physique and in freedom from disease in general.…The people of Hunza…are long-lived, vigorous in youth and age, capable of great endurance, and enjoy a remarkable freedom from disease in general.…Far removed from the refinements of civilization, [they] are of magnificent physique, preserving until late in life the character of their youth; they are unusually fertile and long-lived, and endowed with nervous systems of notable stability.…Cancer is unknown. In 1964, another prominent Western physician studied the Hunzans and gave his impressions. The heart specialist Dr. Paul Dudley White had become internationally famous during the 1950s when he was the cardiologist chosen to treat U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower after the nation’s chief executive suffered a heart attack. This forward-thinking physician was also a founder of the American Heart Association.
Dr. White went to visit the Hunzans, to see for himself whether the claims were true that these people lived to exceedingly old ages without any heart disease, bringing along a portable battery-operated electrocardiograph. Owing to a lack of documentation, he was not able to verify the actual ages of the elderly Hunzans he studied, but he did blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and electrocardiogram studies and found not a trace of heart disease, even in the oldest people he examined. Writing in the American Heart Journal and elsewhere, Dr. White described examining a group of twenty-five Hunzan men he believed on fairly good evidence, to be between 90 and 110 years old.…Not one of them showed a single sign of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol levels. They have 20-20 vision and no tooth decay. In a country of 30,000 people, there is no vascular, muscular, organic, respiratory, or bone disease. Hearing such reports, the U.S. National Geriatrics Society asked Dr. Jay Hoffman to go to Hunza to investigate the health and longevity of this unique and isolated people. When Hoffman returned home, he was utterly enthralled with what he had seen. He wrote,
Down through the ages, adventurers and utopia-seeking men have fervently searched the world for the Fountain of Youth but didn’t find it. However unbelievable as it may seem, a Fountain of Youth does exist high in the Himalayan Mountains.…Here is a land where people do not have our common diseases, such as heart ailments, cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, tuberculosis, hay fever, asthma, liver trouble, gall bladder trouble, constipation, or many other ailments that plague the rest of the world. Moreover, there are no hospitals, no insane asylums, no drug stores, no saloons, no tobacco stores, no police, no jails, no crimes, no murders and no beggars.
If these and other physicians who have made similar reports are to be believed, the health of the Hunzans has long been nothing short of spectacular. And certainly, mountaineers have been greatly impressed by the strength, agility, and hardiness of the Hunzan people. The mountaineering legend Eric Shipton, who was the only man to be part of all of the first four Mount Everest expeditions, often employed Hunzans as porters on his adventures in the region. He said the Hunzans were even better mountain men than the legendary Sherpas of Nepal. Shipton was not alone in this judgment. Many mountaineers consider the Hunzans to be the world’s best mountain climbers, for they can travel, heavily laden, over Himalayan terrain at a rate of more than forty miles per day. One observer noted, “They can scale an almost perpendicular rock with break-neck speed and without fear. They can clamber up the sheerest precipice with the utmost calm.” In the mountaineering world, the Hunzans are known not only for their vigor and physical stamina, but also for possessing buoyant spirits and remaining positive under even the most trying circumstances. In an issue of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, the head of one expedition wrote: The Hunzan men were with us two months, continuously on the move, over what is probably some of the worst country in the world for laden men. Always ready to turn their hand to anything, they were the most cheerful and willing set of men with whom we have ever traveled.
Another mountaineer described a situation when a horse had broken free and run away. His Hunzan porter went after the horse, keeping up the high mountainous pursuit in bare feet in drenching rain for nearly two days, finally catching the horse and bringing it back.
Over and over again the leaders of the most difficult mountaineering expeditions describe the Hunzans as a people who seem never to suffer from fatigue. One said it was commonplace to see them walk twenty miles in a day, heavily laden, over irregular mountainsides, and then dance far into the night. And then to do the same the following day, and the next. Another said that he saw a Hunzan, in midwinter, make two holes in an ice pond, then repeatedly dive into one and come out at the other, apparently finding the near-freezing water invigorating, as comfortable as a polar bear.
AN OPTOMETRIST STUDIES THEIR EYES
In the 1960s, the emcee of the famed U.S. television program People Are Funny, Art Linkletter, funded a visit to Hunza by Dr. Allen E. Banik, a Nebraska optometrist with a long interest in health, aging, and longevity.
Dr. Banik paid particular attention to the Hunzans’ eyes and vision. In the West, he well knew, most people experience a gradual loss of flexibility in their vision beginning in their forties and fifties, a condition called presbyopia. As presbyopia develops, people need to hold books, magazines, newspapers, menus, and other reading material at arm’s length in order to focus properly. When they perform near work, such as embroidery or handwriting, they may get headaches or eyestrain. The prevailing belief among modern optometrists is that there is no getting around it—presbyopia happens to everyone at some point in life, even those who have never had a vision problem before.
Yet Dr. Banik found that even the most elderly of the Hunzans did not suffer from presbyopia or any of the other diseases and weaknesses of eyesight to which elder Americans are prone. “In all respects,” he observed,
the Hunzans’ eyes were notable. I found them unusually clear; there were few signs of astigmatism. Even the oldest men had excellent far- and near-vision—an indication that their crystalline lenses had retained elasticity.
Dr. Banik (along with his co-author, Renee Taylor) went on to describe his findings in his book titled Hunza Land: The Fabulous Health and Youth Wonderland of the World. He was enraptured with these people, and wrote:
This race, which has survived through centuries, is remarkable for its vigor and vitality.…In 2,000 years of almost complete isolation, the Hunzans seem to have evolved a way of living, eating, thinking and exercising that has substantially lengthened their life span. They have no money, no poverty, no disease.…It is a land where the people enjoy not only purity of body but also mutual trust and integrity.… The Hunzans are a hardy, disease-free people unique in their enjoyment of an unparalleled life span.…It amazed me to see the number of older citizens going about their work and showing none of the signs of decrepitude that are so often evident in the United States.…
Dr. Banik concluded that the health and longevity of the Hunzan people begins in their childhood. Moved by the happiness of the children, he reflected, “They laugh readily and seem to have a kindly feeling toward everyone. There is no juvenile delinquency in Hunza.”
A PEOPLE WHO CELEBRATE LIFE
Almost everyone who has visited Hunza has described the atmosphere of peace and the resilient and seemingly always good-natured attitude of the people. When Illinois senator Charles Percy, a member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, visited Hunza, he remarked on the
general air of goodwill that permeated our visit. Wherever we walked, the villagers saluted us and clasped our hands between theirs. Men greeted men, women greeted women. Children ran into the orchards to gather the fresh, sweet apricots for us or offered wild flowers and apples.
Others have spoken of their amazement at the degree of freedom enjoyed by Hunzan women, especially in a Muslim country. They go unveiled, work in the fields in trousers, and inherit property. Divorce is legally as easy for women as it is for men, although it is not common. Women are not abused or overworked. They typically have only two or three children at widely spaced intervals. There is tremendous respect for breast feeding. Babies are breast fed for up to three years, and even longer in some instances.
When the American Geriatrics Society’s Dr. Jay Hoffman returned from Hunza, he summed up the picture effusively:
The Hunzans appear to be happiest people in all the world. They are happy because they are truly alive.…
SECRETS OF THE SOIL
Today, Rodale Press is the largest independent book publisher in the United States, and publishes magazines (including Prevention, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, Organic Gardening, Backpacker, Bicycling, and Mountain Bike) in forty-two countries. And the Rodale Institute is the world’s preeminent advocate for organic farming and gardening.
Both Rodale Press and the Rodale Institute were started by Jerome Irving Rodale. J.I., as his friends called him, had a lifelong interest in health and well-being, and through his success as a publisher, he popularized the organic movement in America. A 1971 cover story by The New York Times Magazine, describing his efforts to promote organic gardening and a healthful lifestyle, called him the “guru of the organic food cult.” (That organic food was then called a “cult” shows you how far we’ve come in the past few decades. Today, Organic Gardening is the most widely read gardening publication in the world.) J. I. Rodale believed deeply in organic food. He felt that the health of a people depends on the quality of food they consume, and the quality of their food depends on the health of the soil in which that food is grown. Nothing, in his eyes, could be more fundamental, nor more important, than the health of the soil.
What does all this have to do with the Hunzans?
Everything. J. I. Rodale was a dedicated student of the Hunzan way of life, and it was from studying the Hunzans that he developed many of his seminal ideas about organic agriculture. He believed that the legendary health and vitality of the Hunzan people grew directly out of Hunzan soil, and that the vitality of their soil derived from their agricultural practices, which he considered to be the finest in the world. In his view, Hunzan agriculture was the pinnacle of the organic way of life and the ideal model for humanity to follow.
Two years before he published the first issue of Prevention, J. I. Rodale authored a book titled The Healthy Hunzas. In this book, Rodale detailed how, over a period of two thousand years, the hard and continuous labor of the Hunzans had produced a spectacular series of fertile terraces throughout the valley, with brilliantly designed irrigation systems that divert water periodically from the mountain streams and rivers to the terraces.
If Rodale was effusive in extolling the sophistication and scope of the Hunzan agricultural terraces and irrigation systems, the American Geriatrics Society’s Dr. Jay Hoffman was downright ecstatic after seeing them:
The thing that impressed us most was the terraces that stretched far out into the distance through the valley and up the mountainsides.…Even the best engineers who have visited Hunza cannot understand how the originators of these terraces were able to erect thousands of them, each irrigated in the greatest engineering feat ever witnessed.…Though they are not listed as such, I like to think of them as one of the seven wonders of the world [due to] the magnificence, engineering skill, and scientific competence built into these terraces. When I first heard Dr. Hoffman likening the Hunzan agricultural terraces to the seven wonders of the world, I felt certain he was exaggerating. But as I’ve learned more about the terraces and how they work, I’ve come to feel that his enthusiasm was warranted.
There are thousands of terraced fields in Hunza, creating a sweeping staircase of extraordinary beauty up the entire length of the valley. The soil they are filled with has been brought up the steep mountain slopes in baskets from the river thousands of feet below. Each of them is diked so that the edges are a few inches higher than the ground. This enables the terraced fields to be flooded with the rich mineral waters that come down from the surrounding mountains through more than sixty miles of channels and aqueducts that have been arduously carved and hacked into the cliffs over the centuries. The heavily silt-laden waters carry a finely ground rock powder made by the pulverizing action of the glaciers which dominate the Hunzan landscape. The waters thus not only irrigate the Hunzan crops but also deposit a thin film of precious minerals over the already fertile soil.
As this process has been repeated endlessly over the centuries, it has constantly conditioned and enriched the soil with essential minerals. Rodale was convinced that this had everything to do with the marvelous well-being of the Hunzans:
The magnificent health of the Hunzans is due to…the way in which their food is raised.…I am sure that the powdered rock dust which flows onto the Hunzan land is a significant factor in the outstanding results obtained by the Hunzans.
Over the many centuries, Hunzan agriculture was entirely organic, of course, because no fertilizers or pesticides were available. But in the recent past there was one year in which the Pakistani government warned the Hunzans that a major infestation of insects was expected, threatening their crops. The Pakistanis offered pesticides as protection, but the Hunzan leadership decided against their use. Instead, the people collected the wood ashes from their cooking fires and placed them on the soil around the plants where the invading insects would have liked to land. The presence of the highly alkaline wood ashes repelled the insects. Then, as the ashes broke down into the soil, they enriched it with their high mineral content. In this way, the Hunzans protected their crops without doing any damage to the soil, and in the process even adding to its fertility.
On a different occasion, though, the Hunzans were persuaded to try a synthetic fertilizer by a salesman who convinced them that their crop yields would be increased. The farmers soon discovered that more water was needed to grow the fertilized crops, and that though the harvest was larger, the quality of the grains that grew was inferior. So they returned to their organic methods, and from that point on they prohibited the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Highly aware of both the agricultural value and the microbial dangers inherent in human waste, Rodale was deeply impressed that without the aid of modern technology the Hunzans had developed methods to compost human waste so that it could be safely used to augment their soil. He wrote:
In every phase of their agricultural operations, the Hunzans show a sagacity that is uncanny. One ponders over the amazing fact that it took the civilized world so long to learn the simple facts of water and sewage hygiene, and yet the Hunzans, in their primitive hideaway, applied it effectively a thousand years ago.…The Hunzan is downright uncanny in his methods of coaxing food out of the soil.…His finger is on the pulse of the land. Soil erosion is at a minimum because he is intelligent and understands the danger of soil loss. He has the time and the energy to farm in a manner that conserves the soil. Rodale understood what the erosion of the soil base can do to a culture. Soil erosion has played a determining role in the decline and demise of many great civilizations, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Mayans. In Topsoil and Civilization, Vernon Carter and Tom Dale point out that wherever soil erosion has destroyed the fertility base on which civilizations have been built, these civilizations have perished. Topsoil is the dark, nutrient-rich soil that holds moisture and feeds us by feeding our plants. It is one of the basic foundations of our sustenance upon this earth. Two hundred years ago, most of America’s cropland had at least twenty-one inches of topsoil. But today, most of it is down to around six inches of topsoil, and the rate of topsoil loss is accelerating. The United States has already lost 75 percent of one of its most precious natural resources. It takes nature, unassisted, five hundred years to build an inch of topsoil. Currently, the United States loses another inch of topsoil every sixteen years.
Rodale, who was among the first to awaken modern society to the importance of soil health, saw the significance of the fact that the Hunzans had fed their entire society for thousands of years from their little valley without any topsoil loss whatsoever. It was for him an epiphany that their soil has only grown richer over the years, and that they have actually created fertile soil in places that were once little more than bare rock.
How have the Hunzans managed such a feat? They put everything that can possibly enhance the soil to use, wasting nothing. When their goats and sheep climb high up the mountainsides in the summer, the children make a game out of going up to find the droppings, then bringing them down to be added to the compost piles. Every solitary thing that can serve as food for fruit trees and vegetables is diligently collected, including dead leaves, rotting wood, and any animal waste they can find. These are all composted in carefully designed sunken compost pits, then carefully distributed over every square foot of the thousands of terraces.
Theirs has been the most magnificent, most enduring, most unremitting agriculture in the earth’s history. While we in the United States have decimated our soil in only two hundred years, the Hunzans have depended on theirs for two thousand and made it steadily more fertile in the process.
THE FOOD THEY EAT
What kinds of foods do the Hunzans grow on the fertile terraces that have been called one of the great wonders of the world? They grow a wide variety of fruit, including apricots, peaches, pears, apples, plums, grapes, cherries, mulberries, figs, and many types of melons. They enjoy all of these plus a multitude of wild berries, both fresh and sun-dried. Their apples are huge, weighing more than a pound each. But of all their fruits, the ones they eat by far the most are their celebrated apricots. The Hunzans have developed more than twenty varieties of apricots whose flavor and nutrient value are worlds beyond the types commonly grown in the West today. Their apricots have been described as among the most luscious fruits on earth.
Apricot orchards are everywhere in Hunza, and nearly every family has apricot trees under cultivation. To view the Hunzan valley in late summer is to see thousands of brilliant orange roofs shimmering in the sun, for the roof of every building is literally covered with drying apricots. Every flat rock surface is also covered with them, split open to receive the sun’s drying rays. The fruits are eaten fresh in the summer, and then throughout the winter and spring they are eaten as dried fruit and also used extensively in cooking and baking. A typical breakfast in Hunza in the winter is a porridge made from dried apricots and millet, upon which freshly ground flaxseeds are sprinkled.
The Hunzans have minimal pastureland, which makes animal husbandry nearly impossible. So like the Vilcabambans and Abkhasians, they eat very little meat. On certain rare feast days they eat goat or sheep meat, and on other days they consume a fermented milk product made from goat or sheep milk. But according to Leaf, meat and dairy products together constitute only 1 percent of their total diet.
It is actually quite intriguing how similar the traditional Hunzan diet is to the traditional diets of the Vilcabambans and Abkhasians. Though they live in very different parts of the world, the traditional diets of all three of these extraordinarily healthy societies are very low in calories by modern standards. In all three cases, protein and fat are almost entirely of vegetable origin. And all three depend entirely on natural foods rather than processed and manufactured ones.
People in each of these cultures eat substantial amounts of whole grains. In Hunza, the primary grains are wheat, barley, millet, buckwheat, and the hard, pearly seeds of a grass called Job’s tears.
Vegetables also play a prominent role in the Hunzan diet, particularly greens, including mustard greens, spinach and lettuce, root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, and radishes, an assortment of beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and other sprouted legumes, plus many kinds of pumpkins and other squashes. They cultivate many kinds of herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes, including mint and thyme. They grow flaxseeds, and rare is the meal that does not contain freshly ground flaxmeal in one form or another.
In Hunza, a large part of the diet is eaten uncooked. In the summer, as much as 80 percent of the food is eaten in its natural state. Vegetables in season are picked just prior to consumption and almost always eaten raw. Fresh corn on the cob, for example, is never cooked. In the winter, the Hunzans soak lentils, beans, and peas in water for several days, then lay them out on wet cloths in the sun. They are eaten raw when they begin to sprout.
When vegetables are cooked, they are typically lightly steamed using a minimal amount of water. And the water used to cook them is always consumed along with the vegetables themselves, thus utilizing the food value that has become concentrated in the cooking water.
By eating much of their food uncooked and cooking the rest of their food only lightly, the Hunzans accomplish a couple of things. They keep to a minimum the fuel needed for cooking, an ecological imperative in Hunza where fuel sources are none too abundant. And at the same time they conserve the nutrient value of the vegetables.
A NOTE OF SOBRIETY
The Hunzans may be among the healthiest of any peoples on earth. Their many disease-free and clear-seeing elders are nourished by a cuisine rich in nutrients and by an environment of extraordinary beauty, with healthy air, water, and soil. Hunza has long been a remarkable place, and we have much to learn from it.
At the same time, though, it makes sense to be cautious when evaluating claims about a distant land that many of us may never so much as visit. Some researchers have become so enamored with the Hunzan way of life as to lose their objectivity.
One starry-eyed researcher who studied Hunzan health and wrote a book on the subject said that men and women work in the fields at 120 years of age or older until their time comes to die. He said they then eat supper with the rest of the group and go to bed. In the morning when the family arises, they discover that the oldster has quietly died in his or her sleep. “What a wonderful way to live and to die,” he reflected, “without suffering the pangs and misery of disease that eventually end in death for most people on earth. The awful suffering that usually precedes death is not known in Hunza land.” While I’m sure that the downward slide of chronic disease and deterioration that often lasts for years in the lives of elders in the modern Western world is far shorter in Hunza, I believe this author’s comments are fanciful and romanticized. No doubt some fortunate individuals in Hunza have died as he described, and many in Hunza have undoubtedly continued in good health until perhaps only a few weeks or even days before their death. But we have no solid evidence that anyone in Hunza has ever lived to the age of 120, and more important, nothing is served by describing the lives and deaths of the Hunzans as totally free of suffering.
I suspect that some of the researchers who have studied life in Hunza have at times become caught up in their zeal to describe a land they perceive to be a paradise on earth. Some, unable to speak the native language, have seen only what the Hunzan rulers have wanted them to see. Others have visited only in the summer, and so have never seen how difficult the cold winters in the mountains can be.
And there is yet another factor that could distort their perceptions. Writers and scientists with already established ideas about healthful lifestyles can tend to look for that which validates their views. People can become gullible when they want to hear what they’ve already made up their minds to believe. It is certainly possible that some of those who have been most fervently enthusiastic about life in Hunza have to some degree been guilty of making the Hunzans out to be something they are not. Unfortunately, this is not an easy matter today to appraise definitively, as the social and political challenges of contemporary Pakistan are beginning now to invade even this isolated and pristine land (a development I’ll discuss more fully later on).
But whatever the failings and exaggerations of some researchers might have been, it remains an indisputable fact that in Hunza, as in Abkhasia and Vilcabamba, a large proportion of elder citizens have retained their faculties, remained vigorous, and enjoyed life right up until only weeks or months before their deaths. It is an established fact that the elderly in each of these regions have had extremely low rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity, arthritis, asthma, dementia, and the other degenerative infirmities that plague so many older people in the West. It is a fact that they have remained for the most part remarkably fit and active as they age.
RESPONDING TO ADVERSITY
What is the Hunzans’ secret? Part of it, I believe, is that when faced with hardship and privation, they have responded with courage and creativity. In countless ways, these resourceful people have turned around what would seem to be disadvantages.
They have a shortage of fuel, so they eat much of their food raw, thus enhancing its nutritive value. They have no refrigeration, so they harvest their food just before eating, once again gaining a nutritional advantage. They have no electric lighting, so in the long winters they sleep longer hours, thus conserving their energy at a time when the sun’s radiance is at its lowest ebb. Living in an extremely rocky and steep area with almost no flat land on which to grow crops, they have built the most ingenious terraces in the history of the world. Faced with a serious lack of soil, they have wasted nothing and carefully put back into their gardens anything that could nourish the earth, over time producing gardens of extraordinary fertility. Situated in a rocky environment that provides almost no pastureland, they have adopted a healthy vegetarian diet. Lacking the many laborsaving devices of the modern world, they are extraordinarily active, thus generating a vitality and level of fitness almost incomprehensible to those of us accustomed to modern conveniences.
How is this relevant to life in the modern world? I’m certainly not suggesting that everything about the Hunzan way of life is worthy of (or possible for) our emulation. But we can learn from these people. While we have developed a mass consumption lifestyle and a throw-away culture that are doing terrible harm to the earth, they seem to have created a balanced and healthy life with the limited resources at their disposal. While the modern world seems to require excessive and unsustainable levels of resource consumption, the Hunzans have, of necessity, come to understand the role of moderation and restraint in leading balanced and healthy lives. They have learned to waste nothing and to find a use for everything.
What makes these people remarkable to me is not that they have known no suffering, but that they have found ways to use their obstacles and challenges to become stronger as a people. What I love about them is not that their lives are perfect, but that in their responses to adversity they have discovered their powers. They remind me of Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” It has always been a mystery to me why some of life’s deepest insights and larger truths are ushered into our lives by limitations and sorrow. As a child, I often wondered why God didn’t put more vitamins in ice cream, which tasted so sweet and delicious, but instead put them in vegetables, which to me at the time did not. But as I’ve grown I’ve learned something that the Hunzans seem as a people to grasp. There is no such thing as a problem that isn’t somehow also a gift. Very often it is in our hardships and trials that we are strengthened. Suffering can be a form, as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass puts it, of “fierce grace.” Certainly all of us have our share of suffering in this life. In a world of great diversity, this is one thing we all have in common. The Reverend Dale Turner reminds us that
each of us has a handicap of one kind or another. For some, it is a physical, mental or emotional infirmity; others suffer estrangements within the family circle; and there are others who struggle through a lifetime with feelings of inferiority or timidity. There are millions who suffer the handicaps that accompany economic privation.…One has this handicap, and one that. The race of life is run in fetters.
WHEN YOU GET A LEMON, MAKE LEMONADE
No, I don’t want to live entirely as the Hunzans do. But I am inspired and heartened by the courage and creativity with which they deal with their difficulties, turning challenges into opportunities. There is something about the modern world, on the other hand, that leads people to respond to problems and suffering with distraction and consumption. When we respond in this way, something precious is lost.
I have known too many older people in the modern Western world who have gotten into the habit of shrinking from challenges. They try to avoid all discomforts. They aren’t handicapped or disabled, but they might as well be. Disappointed in themselves and in life, they have bit by bit abandoned their visions and hopes. Somehow they have become so discouraged and disheartened that their passion for life has been replaced by an obsession with convenience and security. They are perfectly healthy, yet use their age as an excuse not to pursue their dreams.
In their resourcefulness and perseverance, the Hunzans stand for another possibility entirely. And this is what makes their example so pertinent to life in the modern world.
In spite of your best efforts, the process of aging may bring with it the loss of certain abilities. These may be abilities you have possessed for almost all of your life, abilities you have relied upon and taken for granted. But you do not have to allow this loss to undermine your spirit, to stop you from contributing your unique gifts to this world and those you love, or to blind you to the opportunities and choices that still exist in each moment.
I do not believe that by following a healthful lifestyle you can guarantee that you will never fall ill. The longer I’ve lived and the more of life I’ve seen, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that in the course of our lives each one of us will encounter more than our share of hardship and misfortune. No one—the Hunzans, the Abkhasians, and the Vilcabambans included—is immune from suffering and sorrow. But the examples of these cultures suggests that there are indeed steps you can take that will greatly lessen the suffering in your life and make you more capable of responding consciously and creatively to whatever adversities may come your way. These are steps that will make you healthier, stronger, less prone to illness, and more aligned with the powers of healing and joy. The more I’ve learned about these remarkable people, the more I’ve understood that—at every age—you can respond to whatever life brings you with the power of your aliveness and the beauty within your heart.
I’m thinking now of Samuel Ullman. He lived most of his life (1840–1924) in Natchez, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama, where as a white businessman and lay rabbi he devoted his life to securing educational benefits for black children similar to those provided for whites. Today, his life and commitment to social justice are enshrined in the Samuel Ullman Museum at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Though he became totally deaf as he grew older, he did not let that stifle his creativity or his passion. Instead, he continued to express himself and to work on behalf of others. Long after becoming deaf, he wrote a poetic essay titled “Youth” that has touched people all over the world with its eloquence: Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.
Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in an adult of 60 more than a child of 20. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.
Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust. Whether 60 or 16, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing childlike appetite of what’s next.
In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from people and from the infinite, so long are you young.
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