Being diagnosed with cancer is an odd thing. It makes you feel mortal, terrifyingly so. It makes you feel as if those intangible future years have been snatched away, like you’ve been cheated. Worst of all they make you feel your own mortality, to face your own end as a reality, not an intangible unknowing distance ahead.
So in some small way I understand the idea of getting old before I really should. Understand it inside truly, opposed to just intellectually. I should have another ten years or more of concertedly ignoring thoughts of my body giving out. Some people take longer than others but you should never underestimate the power of self-delusion.
When people my age say ‘where did the time go?’ And ‘he was born in 1996 and is now able to legally drink, that makes me feel really old’ they aren’t lying, merely being unaware of how much more solid and concrete that feeling will be in ten, twenty or thirty years time.
This blog post is mostly about getting old. I know many of you reading this are older than I am, although there will no doubt be a bit of a spread, but finding a sense of your own mortality somehow equates with the end of your younger life, a divesting of your childhood. At a certain point you hear the words of people who are seventy and older saying ‘they feel the same inside as they did when they were twenty’ and you actually believe them. Before you just discarded it as hyperbole, how can someone that old and wrinkled have anything in common with the young vitality of now?
As a young man I felt immoral, able to do anything without serious consequence. Whilst I understood the concept of death I never really believed it could happen to me, not in a real visceral sense. Bungee jumping was fine, sky diving fine, taking horrendous risks with eating random food and not sleeping, fine. But then getting old, or dying in an accident was never going to happen to me.
In some ways there is a change. You don’t like staying out until 2am getting drunk every night. You can’t sleep in until 1pm. You stop doing these things because they make you feel bad. After a while of doing them they begin to wear you down. Maybe you push them too far, maybe you have an accident and find it difficult to do some things you took for granted. Then comes along a sense of mortality.
In many ways I think that’s what triggers a midlife crisis, the knowledge of your own mortality. No, not just the knowledge, not the abstract knowing of it but more the belief behind the knowledge.
As an atheist/agnostic, I don’t often look to the bible, but the phrase from Corinthians is relevant. ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things’
Getting old is a terrible thing. It’s like having a house you live in, a home, which you’ve decorated just as you want it. It’s comfortable, warm and reflects who you are. It could be snazzy, art deco or alternative, but it’s naturally in good shape and doesn’t need much upkeep. As time goes by things start to get a little tired. One of the tiles comes off the roof in a storm, a wall starts to look faded and yellowed, maybe you get a touch of damp. The boiler starts to creak, and doesn’t heat as well as it used to. At this point the analogy almost breaks down, because you can fix up a house. In comparison all you can do with a body is to take greater care of it. Maybe be a little more careful about spilling coffee on the stairs, or slamming doors and knocking dents into the wall. Trying not to stain the paint work. You can get a surveyor in (doctor) who might suggest some small maintenance, or cosmetic work, but fundamentally you can’t fix it and try as you might, get replacement doors (knees) where you can, it will eventually become a ruin.
‘Thirty-five is when you finally get your head together and your body starts falling apart’. ~Caryn Leschen
That all sounds pretty bleak. To a degree it is. If you contemplate your future, after a certain age, it can be most depressing. That is why the older you get the more you look to your past. You see how things were, you romanticise the good times and alleviate the roughness of the bad. People say things like, ‘we used to respect our parents when I was young,’ completely forgetting that, actually they hadn’t. In fact you thought they were just as wrong as your kids do with you. A real square, someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. There are quotes from two thousand years ago that say pretty much the same thing in Roman times. That’s kids don’t listen. The thing is they don’t, why should they. They don’t appreciate what you learnt when you were growing up because fundamentally they don’t believe you were ever young. Why should they, they aren’t going to get old.
That’s why it’s important to realise that as old as you are, as close to winter as you get, there should still be things to look forward to. Judging someone by the time they have left is wrong, judge them by what they achieved in the span they have had. It’s easy to turn someone’s old age into a second childhood. ‘Yes he is slowing down’ or ‘she’s losing the plot a little’ Maybe talking to them slowly or correcting them. Sometimes you have no choice in this, and that’s really sad. Dementia is a terrible thing, it takes away the you inside.
For some of you who are concerned about getting old, just remember as Maurice Chevalier said ‘Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.’ Or as importantly ‘Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.’
It’s important not to adjust your attitude prematurely. Remember that older person was once your age, living, loving, thinking and feeling just the same as you. Probably still feeling the same inside as back when they were younger. Make sure you make time for elderly relatives and the elderly in general. Not just because they are wiser, more experienced and have seen more than you. Not because they raised you and looked after you when you were growing up. Not even because they may not be around that much longer but because they are you in the future and you will be just like them. Still young, inside, where it matters.