Monday, May 1, 2017
© Charles D. Hayes
I’ve been writing about aging and mortality for many years, and the older I get, the slower the going and the greater the existential gravity. I’ve long believed that each of us has a threshold for change, and that once past that threshold, we begin to grow fond of the notion that we are ready to be out of here. Enough already.
Okay, maybe not fond, but warming to the idea that there is an upside to nonexistence because it means an absence of the steady escalation of angst associated with the physical and emotional realities of aging. It is a subtle biological gift, a benefit of aging, a psychic legacy of sorts that reminds us that we are mortal animals and our time is almost up. Better to cease to exist than to be overcome by the fear and disillusionment of a world we no longer understand. It helps explain why we say the deceased are at rest.
The frustrations we experience increase daily. At the social level, the music of newer generations begins to sound like unnecessary loud noise, and the things that interest younger generations begin to seem mindless and strange. You find their body-art tattoos appalling and their incessant texting rude, as they lose themselves in their cellphones while in your presence. You want to tell young people that the things they fret about today will dissipate and seem meaninglessness in time, but you know they won’t listen. You know they must learn from experience, the same way you did. You become more and more appreciative of the old saying that “youth is wasted on the young.”
Then there are the personal frustrations I suspect some of you share, like awakening too many times in the night for bathroom breaks. You arise in the morning and have trouble focusing for a time because of cataracts. Rapidly failing eyesight makes reading harder and harder. You feel you’re getting exceptionally clumsy, and you can’t get anything open. Today’s packaging seems designed to keep contents out of the hands of children and seniors.
Like many, I used to swear that I would not spend my final years engaged in daily discussions about aches and pains. But each year, it gets harder as these ongoing little traumas increasingly occupy the front pages of our awareness.
More often than not, written instructions don’t seem to make sense. Computers and smartphones always seem too smart by half, and you can’t seem to turn anything on or click on any button without setting off all sorts of things you didn’t request or expect. You seem to stumble and fall more easily than ever. You drop things more often, break dishes, and bump your head on the kitchen cabinets. You find yourself frequently experiencing a slow burn of anger rising from a sense of losing control, not to mention your memory, even as you realize you are affirming the stereotypical actions of old codgers.
And then, in moments of sincere thoughtfulness, you realize these annoyances aren’t really problems at all. You recognize that it’s the people with devastating health issues who qualify as having problems, that several hundred thousand seniors are now literally being warehoused with feeding tubes in nursing homes. Some are given psychotropic drugs to make them easy to manage because the facility has too little staff. Many of these folks spend their days and nights just staring at the ceiling or off into space.
When you reflect on this kind of existence, you may recall stating a vow that if you are ever diagnosed with dementia, you will check out before you tip over the edge, because nothing is more frightening than the thought of being lost in the maze and dark corridors of your own mind. But then, how will you know when you are about to go over the edge and become truly lost?
With so much of the present seeming more and more alien and very little future ahead, the past begins to loom larger. Music that was popular when we were young can bring a flood of memories of safer, happier times. And yet, as pleasant as reflecting on the past can be, today’s politics in America represent new concerns that make most of our other worries seem small because we are living in an era of angst: the age of Trump and the time of White House strategist Stephen Bannon’s fourth turning.
Future historians will likely refer to Trump’s election as a black swan, an event no one was prepared for but is later described as inevitable after it’s happened. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect that the most qualified person ever to seek the presidency would run against the most unqualified person and not win. We were aware of the ubiquity of misogyny, but we underestimated its depth and the ability of the malady to hide in so many camouflage rationalizations, such as, “A woman as president is fine, just not Hillary.”
Nothing prepared us to be so upset, so alarmed, and so fearful for the future. Perceiving that the current president is so unfit, so ignorant of the demands of his job as president, and so mentally unbalanced, we feel as if we may yet live to see the end of life in America as we have always known it.
Then it hits you that the whole world is experiencing the same problem that comes naturally with aging: too much of the familiar becoming unfamiliar. A workplace under siege by digital technology. Employment uncertainty. Global warming. Health insurance on the brink of imploding. Terrorism. Too many strangers. Too many refuges crossing too many borders and practicing customs that seem odd and threatening. Too many citizens ready to go to war over the nature of reality.
Brexit and right-leaning political movements all over the world are simply manifestations of this frustration: the exaggerated angst of uncertainty. They’re a clue that we are indeed mortal animals, but they’re also a reminder of too much change too soon. The world at large wasn’t supposed to reach its fill of the unfamiliar until old age. Too much uncertainty arrives with fear and disillusionment, and unfortunately, the chaos fosters a frantic need to protect one’s own worldview from doubt. Simply put: We are suffering the fear of mortality salience, the existential core of the human condition.
Millions of our fellow citizens have spent most of their lives paying little attention to politics, and now we are paying the price for that gravely unfortunate mistake in judgment. We have been warned over and over that, as Thomas Paine put it, “what we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.” And yet, the price of our existence hasn’t been cheap at all. Arlington Cemetery stands in sharp contrast to the notion that there hasn’t been a steep price for our place in the world. The irony is that appreciating this reality begins to feel intuitive only when we have a short time left and little ability to make a difference.
At the same time, our big-picture perspective is likely to be better than it’s ever been from a long life of experience. We are acutely aware by now that we live by narratives and that we always have. We live by stories that have a point in search of a plot, and we become accustomed to expecting a beginning, a middle, and an end to make sense of things.
But, when we approach the end of our own story, we like to think that when it’s over, things will go on and on for those we leave behind and that those who survive us will be safe, healthy, and prosperous. Reflecting about our political disorder brings to memory the millions of people killed in wars, people who died too soon, never knowing the outcome of the battle or war but having the end come in the beginning or middle of their own life’s narrative.
When you think of refugees fleeing the war-torn regions of the world and how their stories will end, you then circle back to awareness of your physical aches and pains but determine not to let them become a big deal. You may suddenly be overwhelmed with the thought that it might be better to die on the battlefield than to die not knowing if America will ever recover from the utter inanity and egregious incompetence exhibited in the reign of Donald J. Trump. You realize that, of all the things in life that can go wrong, the most unforgivable are those borne of the ignorance of arrogance bathed in the rhetoric of bigotry and racism—the same strain of ignorance that causes us to misunderstand people with customs that seem strange. This brand of ignorance could be dispelled to a large extent through education, if only all the peoples of the world were to come to believe that all human lives matter enough to be treated as if they really and truly do.Most frustrating of all is the realization that we have learned these lessons from experience. We could easily pass them on, were it not for the fact that youth is impervious to wisdom, especially in the age of Trump. Let us hope the age of Trump passes before we do.
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