“All the time that I thought I was learning how to live, I was learning how to die” (Leonardo da Vinci)
I’m starting to think that Faust may have got it backwards. Granted, it must have been thrilling to chase youth, within and without, when one’s years were coming to a close. Today, nowhere near the close, I hope, I find myself fascinated by the experience of getting older. I wonder if getting to taste the old age and then return to my own might be an adventure even more powerful than Faust’s. It’s a curious notion to contemplate, and, perhaps thankfully, a futile one; but in the absence of means to put it into practice, I find myself wanting to separate ageing into the particles that make it up.
It is strange to find yourself no longer young. Well, I’ll qualify that – no longer really young. Out there in the ether 38 would be considered the new 28, but it’s still impossible not to notice the creeping signs of growing up and growing older. I don’t mean the usual, obvious ones – those I’ll lament in private. I’m talking rather about the tiny elements of inner experience that over the years are becoming real to me, practical and lived in, rather than theoretical.
I am aware of the coquetry for a still thirty-something to comment on getting older: I probably haven’t seen the half of it yet. And still, the particle physics of ageing is slowly revealing to me its mysteries. So here is a particle: what if the conservatism we associate with getting older is a reaction to encountering the world one too many times? After seeing and experiencing the pain life can deal us, we may well reach for the comfort of our habits as the only thing we can count on. Even those whose lives have been gentle and horror-free, suffered pain and losses, minor and major.
How can you resist, having been through loss after loss, the urge to hold on to what you had before, to prevent its being snatched out of your hand? The sad part is, the losses don’t even have to be tragic. The loss of Borders felt real and pronounced, and the void it left is still there. A friend told me recently: walking by her favorite bakery, she saw that her favorite cream puffs were gone, and for good. She felt a pang, berated herself immediately for mourning a pastry when the world is filled with real tragedies, and felt the pang again. There’ll be new pastries, of course, but they will not be the same; and not just the taste of them, but the lore she and all of us have created around these particular cream puffs will be gone too. Or, if not entirely gone, it will take on a patina of that nostalgia that seems not quite real to young people. Sure, they think, you say that was great, but was it really? Did it even exist? Do you even know “great’?..
When I was younger, I never thought, banal though this thought is, that the story of getting older would be to such an extent the story of loss. Slowly or suddenly, the world you knew is transformed beyond recognition, and you stay behind, a relic of bygone decades, lamenting coffee, or music, or movies, or traditions of yore in your head, or among your friends. This of course is the experience of the lucky ones, most of whose losses are not losses of people, or home towns, identities, meaning, art, or faith.
It occurs to me that the young fight to change the world because they need to make it their own. Out with the old and decrepit, let us break the old edifice and erect our own in its stead! – while the older generations, having fought and destroyed, built and nurtured their world, want only one thing: to hold onto it, to protect it, to preserve it… They say it’s for those who come later but I wonder sometimes whether it’s actually from those who follow that they want to protect it.
And then, there is likely the biggest loss of all – the loss of hope. It fades, no doubt: that shiny sixth sense that somewhere out there is a bright new horizon ready to welcome us, any minute now, just after this tiny last hurdle. It fades as one realizes that as the remaining days are easily counted, it becomes impossible to believe that life is a climb toward a pinnacle, some summit where “everything is all right in the end.” An old myth tells us that hope is the worst of all evils – so horrible, in fact, that it remained in the box whose lid Pandora threw open. That old deceiver, hope whispers in our willing ears that things will get better if we just wait, keep doing what we’re doing and look to the rainbows. A wise friend of mine proposes faith in place of hope, and suggests that we should cast the culprit off before old age does it for us – give up the useless pursuit of happiness fueled by hope, and stare despair square in the face. I’m starting to realize she is right, and it’s good to get there before forty.
The fortunate ones greet the end with wakefulness and satisfaction, secure in knowing that they’ve lived well and seen into truths. The less fortunate plug away in distraction and minutia, or move to the subtropics, where amidst the evergreens they nurture a fantasy that in the absence of winter, there is an absence of death, and in the perennial sun, eternal life. Aye, there’s the rub then – figuring out how to live, grow up and grow old, awake and open, alive to the losses and present to gains. Hooray, Leonardo or Socrates, and let us all hope that we do half as well.