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On Ageing (2) – Ten Thoughts About the World Within

December 20, 2015

The Seven Ages of Man: The Pantaloon (Robert Smirke)

A couple of days ago I posted about the first of two aspects of ageing from the perspective of a guy in his sixties. In that piece I wrote about the World Without – how, when age starts getting a grip on you, you react to the external world, and how it reacts back.

This is about the World Within – stuff that goes on in your head that has its own momentum without much reference to the World Without. The reference is more to the person you were and are not now. Or, As L P Hartley wrote in the opening line of The Go-Between:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

You laugh at your mistakes. Well I do anyway. It comes from realising that the world doesn’t come to an end when we screw up. Perhaps that’s because the older we get the less chance we have to bring the world to an end.

I prefer to think that the older we get the less inclined we are to create havoc. But the sight of Leonid Brezhnev in his dotage, stumbling around like a zombie with an acolyte bearing the nuclear suitcase never more than a few yards, makes you wonder.

But being able to take your fallibilities on the chin without your self-esteem shattering, and not looking back with endless remorse, is a kind of wisdom that many people increasingly acquire the older they get, and sadly that some people never acquire. And it’s a gift, because it’s a form of wisdom that would serve us all well when our mistakes have real consequences.

You don’t plan too far ahead. Now that the years to come are less than those that have gone, I find I no longer have ambitions. I have projects. They may be in support of a longer-term goal but they’re self-contained, each with their own harvest of satisfaction. The fire still burns, but it’s tempered by realism. Perhaps that’s part of the process of aging. Your world slowly shrinks. Things still matter, but if you’re lucky the important things matter and the rest don’t.

I have something I call the CBA bin. CBA stands for Couldn’t Be Arsed. Sometimes things end up there because I’m lazy, but also things that might have seemed important once, but are now profoundly unimportant. Like shaving every day, or watching the news on TV. The important things are keeping in touch with people (something I’ve been pretty bad at in the past), learning about stuff you know little about, and deepening your knowledge of things you do know something about.

When he hit sixty, my father learned German from scratch. He also bought himself a 500cc motorbike so that he could get around London more easily. Learning a new language at any age uses plenty of brain cells, perhaps an indication as to why he remained sharp as a pin up to the day he died twenty years later. It also widened his cultural horizons (which were pretty wide already) and once resulted in him having a conversation in fluent German in a chance meeting with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, something that gave him great pleasure.

The motorbike experiment didn’t work out so well. He gave it up after five years and a couple of unscheduled skyward launches. But the point is that he did it at an age when many people start thinking about bus passes.

You are not so easily shocked. I can remember Vietnam, IRA bomb attacks, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Lebanon, Rwanda, 9/11, Madrid, 7/7 and any number of other atrocities and conflicts that have taken place over the past fifty years. I can still be shocked, but I find myself comparing each new event with others that I have lived through.

I also feel an abiding guilt that I can be more shocked when a neighbouring country is attacked than when I read about yet another car bombing in Beirut, or a suicide bombing at a wedding in Iraq, or a mosque in Saudi Arabia. Are these not people too?

I may have lost my capacity to be shocked, but I actually think it’s more important not to lose your ability to be compassionate.

You look for signs of Alzheimer’s. Or rather your partner does. Forgotten a name, a face? Come to a juddering halt mid-sentence because you can’t remember a word or an expression? Ha! Alzheimer’s!

What was once seen as an innocent stumble is now the harbinger of a sinister fate. Years, perhaps even months away from dribbling, incontinent mental oblivion. Doomed to years of care in a home for the demented, much to the annoyance of your loved ones who see their inheritance eaten away by the cost of care.

We laugh about it. My self-test is the daily ritual of bringing tea in bed to my wife in the morning. Can I vault over the dog at the bottom of the stairs and make it to the bedroom with mugs in both hands and not spill a drop? And do the mugs contain what they’re supposed to contain? So far so good, but I’m watching just the same.

You still get angry. No, not raging against the dying of the light.  For me, it’s anger at more often than anger with – at behaviour rather than with people.

I get angry at all kinds of things. A judge sentencing a girl who pretended to be a man in order to have sex with a woman to eight years in jail. Religious bigotry, in fact bigotry of any kind. Donald Trump’s lunacy. Cruelty to children, and not just paedophilia. Bad manners. Poor customer service. Blame culture. ideologies that induce people to kill other people.

And especially I get angry when people who have lots more to give die young.

Everybody of your own age looks older than you. Funny thing, ageing. When I look at people from my generation I look through youthful eyes. I think gosh, he looks old. And when I look at myself in the mirror I screen out the features that might lead others to come to the same conclusion about me.

But then when I look at a recent photo of myself, I think gosh, he looks old.

You cling to routine. Actually I fight it. Sometimes I watch people being disgorged from commuter trains at my local station, while I’m waiting to go into London to a concert or a play. They look grey and exhausted.

I gave up doing a nine-to-five job a long time ago. The mere act of getting up in the morning, putting a suit on and getting ready to go to an office to do the same thing every day is now so alien that I wonder how I managed it for so many years. I haven’t stopped working, sometimes from home, sometimes abroad. Each day is different. Lucky me.

Routine is OK when you’re young, because you can always dream of escape – to the next job, and maybe the next partner. But when you get so used to something that you can’t think of doing it any other way and don’t have the energy to try, that’s when you feel old.

And when routine provides you with a structure that you rely upon to get through the day, that’s when you are old.

You stop looking forward to things. Except your demise, possibly. I think of my mother in the last couple of years of her life. Dementia had taken hold. She couldn’t even look forward to family visits because she would forget. Each day was the same as the last. When something different happened, it would quickly be forgotten.

So those of us lucky enough to remember what diaries are for look forward to holidays, work trips, get-togethers. We wait for Christmas, to see our partners or kids again, for dinner, for a new movie, for a museum exhibition. For the days to get long again. For the next general election when the government gets its backside kicked. Sometimes we even wait for dawn. All these things bring a measure of excitement.

Waiting with positive anticipation makes you feel young. Sadly, disappointment with the way things turn out makes you feel old again. But that’s OK as long as there’s always something new on the horizon.

You stop interacting with people. The older I get the less inclined I am to put up with large gatherings. Parties, for example. One of the reasons could be noise-induced hearing loss. Years of listening to loud music have very likely taken their toll. I don’t consider myself to be deaf, yet I find that understanding what people are saying when there are twenty other people around me braying like donkeys is getting harder.

Or perhaps it’s a sense that words are a finite resource, and best exchanged without distraction. The interaction I treasure is with small groups or individuals. Everyone has something interesting to say if you listen hard enough. You just have to ask the right questions. And these days I prefer watching, listening and learning to sounding off. I save that for this blog.

You know what’s going to kill you. Or at least you think you do. It’ll be stuff that gives you great pleasure. The occasional cigarette, red meat, full fat cheese, cream on your porridge, fruit cake, Full English Breakfasts. And you know that one or more of them will kill you because you read all the medical stuff that tells you so. Though you take comfort in the knowledge that doctors and researchers can’t seem to make their minds up about anything. So maybe some things aren’t as lethal as others. And maybe your genes have some magic protection mechanism that others lack.

But it’ll happen sooner or later, and you can be sure that the doctors and your loved ones will blame one or other of your sensual predilections for your untimely demise. Just about every natural cause of death except motor neurone disease can be blamed on stuff you like.

Yet I for one keep right on indulging and enjoying the stuff that will kill me. The only thing that will stop me will be if someone can convince me that I will enjoy other things just as much if give up the lethal stuff.

Sorry, but fifty years of well-intentioned persuading have so far failed to convince me of the ecstasy that lies in a lettuce, lentils and mung beans as substitutes for camembert, lamb chops and baked potatoes saturated with butter.

So am I frightened of ageing?

Not really. Stuff happens, as Donald Rumsfeld said, and so does ageing. I feel pretty good about my age. As far as I’m concerned, the fashionable adage that sixty is the new forty is a load of old rubbish. Sixty is sixty. There are some young sixty-year-olds and some extremely old ones. The way you turn out depends partly on you, and partly on the cards life deals you.

Rather than grieve over what you’ve lost, isn’t it better to recognize and value the stuff you hold on to? A sense of wonder at something you experience or witness for the first time. A reaction that reminds you that there’s still a strain of adolescence deep within you. Getting pleasure out of things you did when you were a child. And still laughing at things that cracked you up fifty years ago.

And shouldn’t you also be treasuring the stuff you’ve gained? A sense of perspective, perhaps. Satisfaction at things achieved. The ability to laugh at stuff that once would have made you cry. The time and the opportunity to stumble on things and learn because you’re no longer constrained by the tunnel vision of ambition.

Whatever else might come and go with the passage of time, being able to laugh, to empathise and to care about the people who live in the World Without are surely the things that stop the World Within from becoming a grim and ugly place. Or simply a void.

This post is dedicated to Dorothea Royston, Paul Brett Sommers and Dr Aiden Meade, who died this year, but kept laughing until the end.

From → Social, UK

  1. Andrew Oliver permalink

    Excellent piece!

  2. thanks Andy!

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