Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on Aging (or One-Third Life Crisis)

Is it normal for a basically young man to contemplate getting older? We are not supposed to think about aging until we are aged. That is, there is no hill until you are over it. And yet I think I have always imagined myself old as well as young. Barring an early death, I will one day be “old.” Oddly, it seems easier for me to imagine myself at seventy than to imagine myself at forty. Perhaps the clichés are more attractive. Old men can sometimes conjure images of grey-bearded wisdom and secret knowledge. One thinks of philosophers, prophets, wizards, and kung-fu masters. Middle age is often viewed as the un-romantic time of comfortable, pot-bellied respectability and unquestioned routine. One thinks of sit-com dads and office managers. All of this is, of course, nonsense, but nonsense has a way of asserting itself.

It seems that every generation has hopes of eternal youth, or at least youthfulness. We tell ourselves that we will be different somehow. We vow to avoid clichés of adult life such as careerism, boring practicality, and ill-fitting pants. Suddenly, we awake to find that we are homeowners, parents, bosses, and that our waistlines are growing slowly and inexorably outward in answer to some manifest destiny we were not told about. Somewhere, somehow, there is a shift.

When does being respectable become more important than being cool, and aren’t both of these things illusions anyway? There is a sense in which respectability is the “cool” of adult life. Like hipness, it cannot be grasped, but can really only be conferred by others. There are steps we must take, clothes we must wear, but we won’t know we are there until we get a nod or two from our peers. The terrible trick is that once you have mastered these things, it’s time to move on. Have you amassed the prefect indie-rock collection and assembled the most hip and exquisite thrift store wardrobe? That’s wonderful, but you’ll be needing a suit for that new job, and most of those bands will be forgotten in five years anyway. Likewise, at just the moment when you have become the most respectable, established, home-owning, salary-winning, secure lady or gent on the block, it dawns on you that there are much graver concerns ahead.

At the end of this aging process is death, both the starkest reality of our lives, and the one that we wish most not to contemplate. If a culture has no death narrative it must avoid imagining death, or at least create a new narrative. Our own culture is somewhere in the middle of this I think, toying with ideas involving “the circle of life” and the basic “greenness” of death (at least we’re biodegradable), and yet loath to relinquish theistically oriented ideas regarding the continuation of human conciseness after death.

Dylan Thomas once suggested that: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;” and admonished his readers to, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Philip Larkin, another Twentieth Century poet, took a less romantic view of aging and death: “Why aren’t they screaming?” he asks of the very aged in The Old Fools, a poem that goes on to parody old age as a “hideous inverted childhood.” I suppose our response to human frailty and finitude really does depend upon what we believe happens to us in the end. As Larkin concludes in the poem, “We shall find out.”

The Urban Luddite