Every Third Thought

Every third thought shall be my grave. Shakespeare, The Tempest

Robert McCrum is an English writer, associate editor of the Sunday Observer and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber publishers. In 1995 at the age of 42, he suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his right side and impaired his speech. In time, he recovered but realized he had to adjust to a slower pace of life.

However, a few years ago (19 years after his stroke) he had a very bad fall. Again, he survived but realized he was now entering “life’s endgame.” His new book, Every Third Thought, is an exploration of his own mortality, as well as the thoughts of others—writers, physicians, psychotherapists, and neuroscientists.

McCrum discusses the multiple effects of old age, the failing brain, the horrors of Alzheimer’s, cancer, how we die and the curse of falling in our later years. “That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude.”

He writes: The remorseless passage of time, and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty, must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning. The endgame is also about finding late-life criteria for day-to-day conduct, and becoming reconciled to the loss of early-life ambitions. You might feel thirty-five, but it makes sense to behave as if you are actually closer to seventy.

How true that is, how often I feel that way, the desires that I can no longer fulfill. You reach a point in your life when you are unable to do the things you used to. And that isn’t easy to accept. And, yet, he notes that Oliver Sacks was strikingly calm just before his death writing, “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

He cites the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine who wrote, He who lives well, dies well, he who lives ill, dies ill. And he turns to Montaigne, who said,” It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.”

Toward the end of Every Third Thought, McCrum made a list of “Dos and Dont's" There are only three: 1. Try to keep fit. 2. Accept your fate/insignificance. 3. Live in the moment. Not easy to follow, are they, especially when you are in considerable pain?

Every Third Thought is not a grim book, but it’s surely not for everyone. I imagine you need to be approaching the endgame or caring for a one who is, to fully appreciate it.