Sunday, 13 July 2008

Role the Dice

So what am I afraid of? In a word, regret.

I picture myself at the age of 60, having recently learned I have a condition that will see my quality of life deteriorate too quickly for me to come to terms with my death or its implications for those around me. I have never lost someone close to me or had to witness the deterioration of a loved-one’s health - but I know people who have and know that one day, I will too. Despite this, at times I can quite vividly imagine how I might feel if it were me. I envision a strange mix of vertigo and claustrophobia as I see my timeline stretching backwards into infinity, yet in front concertinaed into a few months. I imagine panic and regret tightening my chest for weeks as I reflect on the choices I made that may have led to my condition, whilst trying to focus and stay chipper for others.

Or not. Maybe I’d just take it all in my stride and shrug philosophically with the knowledge that I’d had a good innings. The trouble is, right now I don’t know which it would be. Do you?

Just to hammer home this point, indulge me in an analogy. I took part in a running event recently. The event was due to start at midday, so being someone who suffers badly from stitches, I was careful to avoid eating a large breakfast and resolved to have lunch after the race, not before. Unfortunately for me, I had the opportunity at 11am to eat a bowl of fresh fruit with lashings of coconut cream. Here are the rationales I employed:

If I get a stitch I’ll just tolerate the pain and take it easy until it passes

I don’t care too much about this race anyway so what the hell

So I ate the fruit and the coconut cream, then proceeded to drink the remainder if the tin of cream on the basis that I’d already messed the whole deal up.

During the race, I did indeed develop a stitch, but my rationales broke down in two ways. First, I discovered that I did care about the race after all, something that I must surely have known deep down, being the competitive creature I am. Second, the pain of the stitch was much worse than I expected and was made doubly bad by my determination not to let it ruin my performance.

So, for the final 10 minutes of the race I found myself deeply regretting the pre-race binge and cursing my lack of discipline and foresight.

My point is this: you don’t know how you are going to feel.

In my story, the stakes were low. In life, they are not.

The impression I have is that as a general rule, the older you get, the more ready for death you become. If this is true there may be many reasons for it, but I would offer two here. First, you have had longer to understand death and contemplate the meaning of life. You will have watched more people die and spoken to more people who are dying. Second, you have seen more of life and, depending on your disposition, perhaps grown weary of what it has to offer.

I have also noticed that with increasing age comes increasing bitterness. An unfair stereotype? Perhaps – but stereotypes are often rooted in trends, and trends can legitimately form the basis for decisions. The classicists amongst you will recognise this line from Oedipus the King, by Sophocles.

Alas, alas, what misery to be wise when wisdom profits nothing!

I am only 36, but already I am aware of the profoundly shifting sands of my own perception of the world. Roughly every 5 years for the last 15 I have looked back to my self of 5 years before and thought “Shit, I really knew nothing about the world then.” I can only assume that this incremental wisdom continues in many people throughout their lives.

I would not be saying anything original if I pointed out that the decline of our powers in conjunction with the rise of our wisdom is one of the tragedies of the human condition and that this is one of the key drivers for age-related bitterness.

To get to the point, what I want is this:

- to live long enough to come to terms with dying
- to have the power to act on my wisdom while I am alive

How can I make sure this happens? The short answer is, I cannot. I have to roll the dice like everyone else; but I do get to choose the dice - and so do you.

See Also:
When it comes to Nutrition, the Glass is Half Empty
Cone Theory and the Mystery Doctor


DavidY said...

The French, as always it seems, have a saying for this, which roughly translated goes "if the young only knew, if the old only could ".

As someone who recently reached 61, I acknowledge that there can be some bitterness about not being able to do things which were once possible, but for me this is tempered by a mellowness and ability to keep things in proportion. However dreadful or disastrous something may seem, at my age you realise that the sun is still going to rise tomorrow morning. A cliche maybe, but one of value.

Methuselah said...

Thanks David - nice to have a comment on my first ever blog post. I can see how the mellowness of age can mitigate the loss of power - which is easy to see in how chilled out many elderly folk are. I guess the supposed fear for me comes when (or rather if) a state of affairs arises where the number of sunrises becomes numbered as a result of actions in my youth.

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