Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 782:
NOTHING TO LOSE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 782.

Today, a movie star uses the Gift of Age. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Something there is about being over 60. For one thing, the end of life starts coming into view. I used to ask older friends what it meant to be no longer young. They usually gave me fuzz -- stuff like, "You're only as old as you feel."

Then last Fall I found an article by Audrey Hepburn. Down through the years I'd watched Hepburn's exquisite face on the screen. Now that face was lined -- and more compelling than ever.

As spokesm'n for The Children's International Emergency Fund, she'd been to Somalia. She'd been with death, filth, and suffering. The rescue was still being thwarted by chaos and corruption -- thwarted by the very starvation it tried to stem.

Hepburn, who'd known hunger as a child in German-occupied Belgium, wrote, "I keep sane by saying it is not my job to solve all the problems." She couldn't heal all the pain in the country or even all the pain in one tent. So she closed her mind to the vastness of this ocean of pain. She spent her last years doing what she could do. And that proved to be a great deal.

Hepburn spoke with a voice of Age that made sense. She was resigned. She was beyond ambition and beyond fear. Now I know that she was living under a death sentence from cancer.

And I see what my elders wouldn't admit. It was how little they had to lose. The world is still filled with good things and possibility. But good is there to admire, not to possess. There's little to lose because there's nothing you can keep -- not possessions, not prestige, not even life itself.

Still, most of us react to Age with caution instead of abandon! Yesterday at lunch a friend said, "You have to look at Hepburn's whole life. She came out of WW-II willing to take chances. She danced to her own drum. If you risk only when there's nothing left to lose, that's cheap."

And so it is. Having nothing to lose is the Gift of Age. But it's a Gift we can't claim if we've trained ourselves to lives of caution. If I don't invent when risk is dangerous, how can I be creative when risk is gone?

Last week, Hepburn died. In her last days she made us see the plight of those children -- a plight that'd once been her own. She finished her life working calmly, with utter determination, and without avarice or ambition.

They hardly mentioned her film career at the funeral. In the end her true beauty was writ in her freedom and the healing that flowed from it. She'd understood creative risk from the start. That's the whole reason she was able to use her life so well -- when she finally had nothing left to lose.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hepburn, A., Unforgettable Silence. Newsweek, October 26, 1992, p. 10.

Humbert, C., Audrey Hepburn Dies of Colon Cancer at 63. (Associated Press) Houston Post, Thursday, Jan. 21, 1993, pp. 1 & 17.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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