I like Ian Brown’s birthday pieces—about turning 55 in 2009, now 60 in Feb 8th’s Globe and Mail—because they so eloquently express the feelings that come naturally to people on their birthdays, starting around age 30: the sense of time running out, the vision of one’s remaining life as a diminishing resource, the fear that its quality will deteriorate. He writes:
I began my 60th birthday underslept, with a brewing chest infection, and…not at all pleased to have reached the milestone—standing as I was on the threshold of the no-man’s land beyond sixty. Sixty! I mean, Jesus wept: How did I get to be this old?
I just turned 66, and know the tug of such feelings. I’m not as strong as I once was. I don’t expect to slalom waterski ever again, and I have grave doubts that I’ll win the Giller Prize or see the Earth from space. Human beings are made in a way that makes us prey to this kind of melancholy. We have an outstanding ability to imagine the future, which, combined with superb manual dexterity, gave us an edge over the other terrestrial species with which our ancestors once competed. But merely visualizing the future was not enough; we also had to be motivated to engage with it, to make plans and work hard to carry them out. We had to care; and it is our peculiar curse that natural selection hit on a solution biased so heavily towards caring about our own sorry hides.
Threats to self, when we become aware of them—as we do on major birthdays, waking up to the fact that another decade has been subtracted from the life we can still look forward to—tend to loom large and ominous. In between such existential misgivings, most people forget about them—or push them into the background at least—and actually enjoy life. When things go well enough (as for many of us, they often do) we stop obsessing over the fearful prospects of our personal decline and demise. If we are especially lucky, we even experience occasional whole, glorious afternoons of ‘living in the present’ when we ‘wake up and smell the roses.’ Ian Brown calls this “not paying attention.” In his latest memento mori he went so far as to berate himself for it. As he contemplated a picture of himself taken twenty years earlier, at the age of 40, but looking “like someone who thought he was 21”—which I take to mean he looked like he was enjoying being alive and having a baby daughter to push about in a stroller—he was visited by a truly anguished thought:
Standing in the darkened kitchen at 60, having been that sort of person—the kind who thought he was 21 when he was 40—suddenly struck me as a terrible, terrible error. Oh, you fool, I thought, you did not realize upon what quiet foot The End approacheth.
Now, this is classic. What more poignant example of the human condition than a 60-year-old regretting that, when he was 40, he wasn’t worried about turning 80! “But, Ian,” I want to say (I’ve never met him, but his writing is so vividly personal I feel that he has confided in me as a friend; I have to use his first name) “why would you wish that on yourself? Don’t you worry enough as it is?” The answer I get—reading between his lines, to be sure, but the message seems clear enough—is that not to “pay attention” to one’s nightmarish visions of getting old is somehow to ignore reality.
Humans have a limited ability to pay attention: our tendency to obsess over an imagined future cuts into our appreciation of the real reality going on around us all the time. It behooves us to remember that our visions of the future usually turn out wrong. They are distorted by various kinds of cognitive bias well known to psychologists. Peak experiences, both good and bad, but especially bad ones, are vastly over-represented in our imaginations. Worriers who die a thousand deaths are in fact strictly limited to one. Tuning out the present scene in order to dwell on future possibilities is not a recipe for being better grounded in reality. So again I wonder how Ian can wish that for himself, and it occurs to me that he wouldn’t wish it for anyone else. I doubt he’d criticize his wife, his children, or his colleagues for not fretting more about their futures. He reserves that for himself.
It’s not as though he can accuse his past self of being careless. My impression of Ian is that he has always been careful about what he does, considerate of consequences both for himself and for others. He has something resembling a steady job as a TV host, and is the author of several books. His writing is admired by thousands (including me). Overall, an enviable career. Yet he takes himself to task for what sounds like imprudence:
…now, at 60, those faults seemed especially irreversible: not enough money, no visible retirement possibilities, no lush vacation home, no novels or plays or Broadway musicals or HBO series written, no fast cars, the usual panoply of regrets.
He almost got me on “no visible retirement possibilities.” Maybe—what do I know?—journalists these days are used so hard they die in harness. But ‘no Broadway musicals or fast cars’ undercuts the effect, tempering my sympathy.
I don’t want to be unfair. I feel my comments so far are a bit off the mark. Ian never said his worries about the future were more factually accurate than his experience of the present; he merely implied that, for some reason, there were too few of the former and too much in the way of “pleasures and terrors and gentle draining sounds of everyday life” distracting him from the grim reality of the clock…
…making its sound, which as Tennessee Williams said, is loss, loss, loss.
The sense of reality is at the nub of the experience—which I have had too, as everyone has. We freely admit we don’t know what the future will bring, but we are sure there will be a future and it will be ours. If my future includes any hazard of poverty, illness, or fast car deprivation, it will be my poverty, my illness, my deprivation. The thought is compellingly motivating, spurring me to try my utmost to bring about a different future. We feel we have no choice in the matter. Our futures bear down on us like runaway trains, and we must take the full brunt of their impact. Although I may be sympathetically concerned about someone else’s future, it’s ultimately someone else’s problem, whereas my own future is always my problem. That’s the conventional wisdom—which, I have argued in this blog, is about as well founded as geocentrism. But it was a long time after Galileo that geocentrism stopped feeling like the truth. We evolved to regard the Earth’s surface as a fixed plane of reference, and the maps by which we navigate every day (including our mental maps) use geographic coordinates. Intuition reinforced by the habits of a lifetime dies hard, even if it has been shown to rest on an illusion.
Ian was upset by the thought that Ian, at age 40, had a reason to care about the fate of Ian, at age 60, that he didn’t have to care about any other 60-year-old—and that the 40-year-old Ian dropped the ball. But there was no such reason. The relation we know as‘being the same person’ is, in reality, too weak to carry that weight. The only real relations between our earlier and later stages are ones of similarity and causal consequence—relations that also hold between ourselves and other people. Our real lives are as communicable as diseases and ideas. I doubt very much that the 40-year-old Ian neglected his responsibilities towards his occasionally cantankerous 60-year-old successor. He had the more important task of spending time with his daughter who—to judge by her age in the photo—must now be around 21, and who, I imagine, has soaked up a great deal of her father’s wisdom, grace, sense of humour, and outlook on life. There is no good reason that, at age 40, he shouldn’t have been at least as engaged with her future as with his own. I suspect that, in fact, he was. He looks to me like a father who would anticipate his daughter’s future with as much eager relish—as well as appropriate, protective, fatherly concern about the hazards lurking ahead—as he ever felt for his own future, even at the green and eager age of 21.
Ian felt somewhat better before his birthday morning was out, having received a phone call from his brother and a “raft” of congratulatory and appreciative messages from Facebook friends—the sort of supportive effusions and personal grooming that are guaranteed to perk up social primates like ourselves. His attitude towards his life shifted from ‘glass three-quarters empty’ to ‘one quarter full,’ and he began to hear the clock saying “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.” Still, that’s not a huge improvement—just a minor variation on the same dreary theme of a life stretched like Derek Parfit’s glass tunnel between point A and point B, marked with an arrow indicating “You are here.” Better take a sledgehammer to the glass, and escape to the open air. But of course, that’s easier said than done. We are built in a way that makes us think thoughts like Ian’s. The best we can do is understand their evolutionary origins and their lack of factual, testable content, and then treat them lightly, like any other fleeting mood we know to be rationally unjustified— “Oh, there’s that thought again: Getting older looks like a discouraging journey into loneliness”—and dismissing it as (if we are sensible) we dismiss the foolish hope that the next lottery ticket we buy will hit big.
But (I hear you protest) the cases are not parallel. Hardly anyone wins the lottery, but plenty of 80+-year-olds are lonely. There’s a real risk! Yes, but that’s not the point. Even if you had drunk from the Fountain of Youth and were personally exempt from the sufferings of old age, there are plenty of other old people around. Some of them you know personally; one or two may be close to you, perhaps your own parents. The reality of their pains and losses and loneliness cannot be denied. The illusion is that something like the wall of a glass tunnel separates their lives from yours. There is no such wall. Loneliness is loneliness—much the same bad thing whether it’s yours or someone else’s. But the sledgehammer is an antidote to loneliness. When you realize that your life is not a private stream of consciousness chastely channeled within the confines of your skull (from which you peep out like a Cartesian homunculus), but instead, promiscuously mingles with all the other lives on our teeming planet, as streams do when they enter the sea, loneliness doesn’t seem like such a hard problem to overcome.