How to Stay Young, or, 5 Pillars of Dubal

At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

At Dubal’s celebration, surrounded by his loyal following.

It’s pretty simple, right? Don’t smoke, eat right, stay active, and listen to your elders.

Wait. That last one is dubious. We all know people who have been around for a long time but have never seemed to live a day in their lives. How about, then, listen to your elders, but only the wise ones?

Before I left New York city, I met up for lunch with David Dubal, the piano encyclopedia, eccentric oracle, and mentor extraordinaire. I told him how much I had enjoyed hearing about the 5 Pillars of Dubal, a set of tenets presented a few months earlier at a celebration in his honor. Peter, a talented pianist (just one of an embarrassing number of talented pianists present), told us how Dubal had bestowed the 5 Pillars upon the students in Dubal’s class at Juilliard, and how, years later, Peter still remembered all of them. They are, in order:

  1. I am alive!

  2. I am me.

  3. Expect nothing.

  4. Let nothing faze you.

  5. No one can save you.

Peter explained these enigmatic missives. First, when you wake up, you must take a moment to marvel at your body (here he raised his hands and examined them, front to back) and the fact that you are alive! It is no small thing. Second, you are YOU, and no one else. Peter is Peter and should not try to be anyone else. Third, you should expect nothing from the world. Entitlement is the root of much unhappiness, hatred, and worse in the world. Fourth, let nothing in life throw you off kilter (easier said than done, right? I’ll come back to this one shortly). Lastly, we all have a mortal fate, and recognizing that, alongside the first pillar, gives our lives balance.

As Peter explained the pillars, Dubal beamed with delight, as if these pillars were new to him too. Such is the nature of his wisdom - shot straight from the heart, rather than mannered and sterile from overthinking. Of course, you could reword his 5 Pillars in a million ways, as society has done: Life is Short, You do You, etc., but somehow, the Duballian version seemed to combine the best of both childlike and sagelike perspectives.

When I reminded Dubal of the pillars at our lunch, I expected him to smile with delight as he had that night and perhaps say something generally affirmative like, yes, yes, always remember those. Instead, he lurched forward over the table and looked intently at me for a moment. He raised a finger and said, “Yes, but there is one more - you must always remember this. Practice fearlessness. Always. Practice fearlessness.”

In the moment, I was surprised by the unexpected addendum to the 5 Pillars. However, in retrospect, it was the missing piece to their implementation. Pillars 1-3 and 5 are easily understood. But, let nothing faze you? It seems these days as if everything fazes everyone, as if my entire country is stuck inside an ever-inflating inner tube of anxiety. It seems that people are so fazed by things they read on the internet that they feel compelled to kill others. How I can I not be fazed?

The answer, is that you must pretend. You must, as we modern people say, fake it till you make it. Dubal and I talked about how being a concert pianist is the perfect embodiment of this practice. Every single time I go out on stage, I must seem fearless, whether I am or not, because I have a message to deliver. Over time, as with any other practice, fearlessness will become a ready companion, calling up its own attendant virtues: control over one’s emotions, clear-eyed responsiveness, and mindfulness of one’s values. Would not the news be less scary if, instead of portraying faces locked into contortions of rage, it showed visages of people strong enough to calmly engage with opposition? Would that a successful nominee for this country’s highest court could model this, but his failure is many of ours as well.

Yes, we need to practice fearlessness, because, as short as life is, there is plenty in it to scare all of us.

The last few months, I’ve been starting a new job. I’m certainly no stranger to starting over - I’ve had a lot of jobs, I’ve ventured into many rigorous fields of study, I’ve spent time living in foreign countries with my abysmal language skills. But. I am also no spring chicken, and I have to say starting over is not as easy as it used to be.

I’ve noticed that, as we get older, the chances for doing new things dwindles. We get used to things: our circle of people, our routines, our places. By contrast, in our first few decades, everything is wonderfully novel. My niece is 2, and she’ll soon go to school, learn to read, write in cursive (maybe?), and understand the time value of money. All with the cutest fervor.

But for those of us farther on in life? Starting new things gets harder. At least it has for me. I feel the effort. I have more to consider. I feel that failure is more costly now.

At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to settle into your comfy bear den, encountering nothing new, until it caves in around you. The trick to staying young, I believe, is constantly trying new things. Why? Because doing so connects us to our younger states of being and ensures continued personal growth.

How do we do that, given all the awareness we’ve accumulated? Practice fearlessness. In other words, be brave.

Dubal was careful to warn that this is not fake bluster, not the fluffed-up tail feathers, not the macho posturing intended to intimidate. No. Many of our leaders today think they show “fearlessness” when in fact they show their failure of the first 5 pillars: they expect everything for themselves and give nothing to others, and they are fazed at the slightest hint of opposition. We are not talking about this fake “fearlessness,” which of course comes from very deep-seated fears or insecurity (how dare you prevent me from becoming a justice! I deserve it! And yet I am terrified of not getting it). We are talking about the quiet inner strength, a kernel of which is inside each one of us, inside the child in each one of us. We must trust in that kernel and let it lead us forward, ever challenging and growing ourselves with grace and at no one’s expense. Would that our leaders could model this.

I’m glad I had that lunch with Dubal, because the 5 Pillars are great, but when I shy away from a challenge that I know is necessary -- having an honest conversation, leading with confidence, stepping outside of my comfort zone -- I think of that sixth pillar and how it will keep me sharp for a very long time.

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