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A Sense of Purpose

For Jimmy Carter, the Golden Years Mean the Opportunity to Follow His Heart

November 25, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

"You are old when regrets take the place of dreams."

--Jimmy Carter, "The Virtues of Aging"

Former President Carter remembers clearly when reality struck, when he knew he had reached senior citizendom, a state he had until then rejected as only for older folks.

He and Rosalynn and friends had ordered identical breakfasts at a cafe in Georgia, but when the bills came, Carter's was less. An honest man, Carter "called the waitress over and said, 'You made a mistake,' " he recalls. " 'You didn't charge me enough.' "

Whereupon, a farmer of a certain age sitting at the next table said, his voice booming, "That ain't no mistake, Mr. President.

"They give free coffee to senior citizens."

"Everybody roared with laughter," says Carter--but for him it was a watershed, "the first time I ever realized that I was a senior citizen. At first, it was really disturbing to me. But now I've gotten to kind of enjoy it, because there's some privileges that go with being older."

Older, perhaps, but hardly old. Trim and vigorous at 74, Carter deals more in dreams than in regrets. Sure, he wishes he "could have had four more years in the White House. I wish I could have made a lot of progress on Mideast peace."

When "retired" involuntarily at 56 after a single term, he was, he admits, devastated.

"We went back to our tiny town [Plains, Ga.]. I didn't have a job. We were deeply in debt. We thought the best time of our life was over," a feeling that millions of Americans share upon getting the handshake and the gold watch. "Just because we had lived in the White House didn't make us any different.

"And we went through a very difficult time with each other. Rosalynn was almost physically ill. I think I looked on the bright side of things more to combat her despair than [because that was how] I really felt."

Things looked grim, he says, until "we finally had the courage to do what everybody needs to do: to sit down in a time of quiet contemplation and say, 'OK, what is there that I have? What are my talents? What are my abilities?

" 'What have my experiences given me on which I can build for my future? What are some of the things we did when we were young that we really enjoyed and have never had a chance to pursue because we were too busy making a living? What are the talents that I thought I had when I was young that I never was able to develop?' "

The Carters asked themselves, too, what interesting experiences might await them, either in Plains among their own circle of acquaintances or out in the world.

"Out of that analysis," Carter says, "has come almost everything that we do now," none of which has to do with politics or other aspects of their preretirement life.

Time to Reflect on the Joys of Aging

One thing they do is write books. Carter, who has turned out 14 since leaving office, was in Los Angeles last week promoting "The Virtues of Aging" (Ballantine Books, $18.95), his newest, in which he both extols the joys of the golden years and addresses such challenges as dying with grace and dignity.

Chapter headings, borrowed from a mountain philosopher who was a Carter friend, include such nuggets as "Anybody who can do at 60 what he was doing at 20 wasn't doing much at 20"; "Getting a second doctor's opinion is kind of like switching slot machines"; and "When you're pushing 70, that's exercise enough."

Carter's own definition of old age:

"Each of us is old when we think we are."

By that definition, he is not.

He wrote of himself and his wife: "Our primary purpose in our golden years is not just to stay alive as long as we can, but to savor every opportunity for pleasure, excitement, adventure and fulfillment."

"I have a lot of unfulfilled ambitions," he said, relaxing in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I'm writing a novel now about the last five years of the Revolutionary War, about which historians don't know very much, in particular what happened in the Southern part of the Colonies during the Revolution." It will be based in part on his own family's history.

Carter is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, a deacon of the Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains and a dedicated and visible volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization that helps the needy build homes for themselves.

He also heads the Carter Center in Atlanta, whose programs worldwide include monitoring democratic elections in developing countries, attempting to eradicate disease, helping African farmers improve crop yields and mediating conflict in countries from Haiti to North Korea.

Taking Charge of One's Life

Volunteerism has played a major role in the Carters' post-White House years, and he laments the reluctance of other seniors to volunteer.

"A lot of people become human vegetables" leading "narrow, restricted" lives, he observes.

"And that's when we really become old, when we begin to depend on others to do things that we can do ourselves [and] we accept that from now on our life is going to be declining.

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