Captain Tom, and How Age is Just a Number

On February 2, the world lost one of the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic: Captain Sir Tom Moore. You might remember him from the early days of lockdown, when he made news for walking 100 laps in his back garden to raise money for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

When he began his endeavor, his goal was to raise £1,000 by his 100th birthday on April 30. Instead, he raised nearly £40 million.

Watching Captain Tom confidently grip his walker and amble around his garden was one of those hopeful, optimistic sights we clung to during those early weeks of the pandemic. It was such a simple story – an elderly man, a garden and a daily walk – but one that struck a chord in us all.

When the world ground to a halt last March, a pervasive sense of hopelessness accompanied our fear. Not only was the thought of getting sick with a deadly virus terrifying, but the situation was made worse by the fact that there seemed to be nothing we could do besides coop up at home and watch the news. In any fearful situation, to be able to do something – anything – can help alleviate anxiety. If you feel like you are being productive, you can manage your fears. But the precise remedy to stopping the pandemic was to isolate and stay at home. To literally do nothing.

We now know what we can and cannot do safely. But early on, we didn’t know that. There were no vaccines. We didn’t know how long until we’d see a light at the end of the tunnel. So how delightful was it (and let’s face it, amusing in a heartwarming way) to see a 99-year-old man step out into the sunlight, dressed in his finest clothes, wearing his medals, and decide to do something about the situation!

Captain Tom (or should I say Captain Sir Tom – more on that in a minute) showed us that in the midst of our despair and isolation, we could still make a difference, even at home. He took what was likely a daily routine to stay active and turn it into a fundraiser to celebrate his upcoming 100th birthday. And raise money he did!

It is certainly a sad irony that he passed away from COVID. But I think even he would agree that when you get to be 100 years old, every day thereafter is a bonus. He had already lived a full, happy life pre-pandemic. Yet, what he accomplished in his last year, his 100th year, is how he will always be remembered.

And this gets to the second point of my post, besides honoring his legacy: he is proof (and a helpful reminder) that you can make an impact at any age.

Think about it – how much of our anxiety stems from a deep-seated insecurity that somehow we’ve missed the window of opportunity to do x? We fret that we are too old to get married and have a family, or that we aren’t as far along in our career as we had hoped. We wonder why we are still in debt, or why our goals remain unfulfilled.

Deep down we wonder – have we already lived the best years of our life?

Then we watch a 100-year-old Captain Tom being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and we realize, you know what? We are still in our prime!

His knighting by the Queen was quite a sight. He didn’t need an honorific to validate a life well-lived. He was a Captain in the British Army and had a long career in the manufacturing space. He was an avid motorcycler and raced competitively. He had a family that loved him. Had he passed away in 2019, one would say that he lived a good life. Yet in his last year, his legacy was cemented for generations to come.

As the pandemic has made clear, life doesn’t care about our plans. Life does not conform to neat, predictable timelines. That can be maddening when we set goals, or when we visualize having a certain comfortable life by a certain birthday. But the mindset we need to get out of (and I include myself in that “we”), is believing that because something hasn’t happened by a certain timeframe, that it can never happen. Or, that our ability to make an impact and leave a positive legacy in the world has an expiration date. It doesn’t.

For every unfulfilled goal, there is an example of someone who achieved it later than society expected us to. This knowledge is what has helped me stay sane as I enter my mid-30s. I’m still living at home. I’m still single. My disease is progressing with unrelenting speed. I haven’t advanced as far in my career as I had hoped to by this point. I sometimes feel like life has passed me by.

But it hasn’t, and deep down, I know that. Every day, I try and live the mindset that anything is possible. My unachieved life goals can still happen. After all, so many good things have happened in my life that were never my goals to begin with!

One of my favorite quotes comes from the still-relevant self-help book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie: “Every day is a new life to a wise man.” I interpret that to mean that any day can be the one that can change the trajectory of your life. Just like bad things can happen that you never expected (such as the pandemic), good things can happen as well. Dreams and goals that once seemed unachievable maybe just needed a little longer to materialize.

For Captain Tom, I doubt he set out on his fundraising quest to achieve worldwide acclaim. In fact, I’m certain he didn’t. That’s not who he was. But nonetheless, he did a world of good in a short period of time. He never could have known that he would be knighted a month after starting his quest. Or that upon his death, the Prime Minister and Queen herself would honor his legacy. I doubt he would have forseen that every major landmark in the UK would light up to commemorate his life. He didn’t start the fundraiser for those reasons, but he did prove that one can make a dent in the world at any age.

Maybe we won’t become overnight, worldwide sensations like Captain Tom. But we all have the capacity to take that first step. To wake up believing that today is a new day. A new life.

Maybe for you, this will be the year. Or maybe you’ll hit your prime at 99.

Rest in peace, Captain Tom!

Here is the BBC’s commemoration of his life:

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