These days one is encouraged to avoid admitting anything so dreadful as ageing, but the fact is, old or not, I am well past the fulcrum of my time alive, even should I prove a rarity of longevity. There are a few people alive today who are purported to be twice my age, but I doubt I’ll be among that number, too much a European in diet and habits. I have never made undue provision for living long so much as I have tried to live well, defined as a moderate balance of pleasures, devotions, duties, honour and kindness, along with, of course, a plentiful supply of faults and mistakes, under the overarching principle that life is all about love and work, the rest being the circumstances one finds oneself in, the variety of which is as broad as the sum total of human beings, past, present and future. There are six and a half billion lives being lived in this world at this moment. Mine is only one of them.
A few years ago (we’ll come to what I mean by this) I turned on the radio in the middle of an interview on BBC Radio 4. I never caught the names of either party, but some old chap in his late eighties was asked what he felt about old age. “Well,” he said, “of course one’s children have all left home, got families of their own, hardly see them more than two or three times a year, occasional phone calls… Most of one’s friends have died or they’ve disappeared into some remote old people’s home in the country, get a few Christmas cards. Few visitors. Mostly one is left to one’s own devices…” He paused. “These are the main advantages.”
(Another good answer to a similar question was given by Kirk Douglas when he turned 80 – “ Oh, I can do anything now that I could do when I was 18… For about 30 seconds.”)
Try as one might – try as I have anyway – no time of life can be fully understood until you get there. The issue of our subjective sense of time within the framework of the cosmic reality of Time seems to have something to do with it. In scientific terms, within the very nature of the universe, Time turns out to be a very precise procedure, measured by the succession of instances at which photons make the decision to stay the same, i.e. in wave form, or to change to particle form. In fact, it has been defined as 5.39116(13) x 10-44 of a second, i.e. very very short blinks, known as Planck Time, after Max Plank, who defined them. Planck time is the measure of how long it takes light to travel 1.616229(38)13 x 10 -35 i.e. a very very short distance. This is Quantum Mechanics. If QM is a blank canvas for you, as it is for me, theclaphaminterpretation.com provides a succinct if dense layman’s explanation of QM and some of the outcomes of its revelations (I declare an interest: the blog is written by my brother David). I might add that spending time reading about this sort of thing is another of the privileges of age. I don’t have any more time for idle recreation than I ever have had (perhaps less as I tire more easily than I used to), I still have work to do. It’s just that how my time is used is no longer of great importance so long as I’m happy with it. No one is calling the shots except me.
This is all very well, but the subjective experience of time is what we all live with. Taking account of the objective nature of time as given above, it seems to me subjective time intuitively takes account of the fraction of the total time of one’s life that any event occupies. When you are two weeks old, half a life time is 7 days. The subjective sense of that fraction remains the same throughout the rest of your life, it’s just that half a lifetime at 60 for instance, is 10,958 days. At that age a day can go by and you hardly notice it before it’s bedtime.
Then there is memory. Again, courtesy of conversations with my brother, I am told that while science is finding out a lot about how, and indeed, where the brain deals with experiences as transmitted to it by the body, the cortices where it makes sense, as it were, of the senses, we have no idea of how or where memory is stored. We know our memory is a great deal more prodigious than we are aware of most of the time. Unexpected recall of this or that event or lesson is a common experience. The interesting thing here is what we do remember and easily recall. All of our skills and so on, of course, and then the memories that feed our sense of self and educate our development. In other words, subjective memory.
Half one’s most significant, packed memories occur during the first quarter or so of life, largely, I would suggest, because the rate of change in your daily life is rapid and continuous, accelerating from day one, but somewhere around the early third decade, things level out for the great majority of us. Life (at least, so we hope) settles to fixed patterns that give an overall impression of calm continuity. Change continues of course, be it radical or moderate: something happens every day. But at the same time, with each passing day more and more of one’s life becomes repetitive, routine, habitual, as subliminal as changing gears in a car.
Until you get old. In many cultures elders are treated as honoured members of their children’s households. In most if not all Western democracies that tradition has been largely replaced by pension schemes and Old People’s homes. Not as nice, perhaps, but just as secure. In either case, it is generally possible in the last few decades of life to do what you want during the day (assuming you don’t have any unachievable desires by then).
It is very restful. Wake when you like, eat when you like, dress when you like. Get the chores done, get the work done, but basically it’s a 24/7/365 day schedule, so there are no deadlines except the ones you give yourself. Nothing is urgent unless it really, really is, mainly meaning matters of life and death. Even illness loses its effectiveness, something to be dealt with soon, possibly later today, but generally, just another duvet day, take a tablet and let it pass. I doubt my wife and I own a thermometer these days. You know when you’re ill, it is a measure of the difference between one’s permanent creaks and discomforts and an uncomfortable change in that status quo. As another of my brothers remarked the other day, “After 65, it’s all running repairs.” This could be taken as a disadvantage of old age, and I suppose it is, but for now, it is not impinging on my life to any great extent. I notice I get out of cars and armchairs in the way my father used to, lots of heaving and pausing, with grunts, and a kind of swaying moment of triumph when upright, but it is not a hindrance. It takes longer, but as said, I don’t care how long anything takes.
The rich could live like this in principle, in some cultures they still do live what is otherwise rightly called an idle life, but in Western democracies, it is now quite rare. 21st century Western (i.e. European culture) capitalism demands that everyone who can work should work. There’s a touch of Calvinism in European democratic philosophy, but it is also considered a capitalist imperative – bottom line (as capitalists say) productivity is all. This is why even the richest top cats of commerce live such busy, closely scheduled lives, diaries set out in ten minute intervals and so on; no holidays, no time off at all (no wonder so many look stern and unhappy a lot of the time, but that’s by the by). The lucky rich, sports and media stars, lottery winners and so forth, can get happy, they can enjoy the leisure time afforded to them (unless their fame and fortune is all a personality aberration in the first place, but that’s another matter). George Clooney, for instance, appears to be a happy man, intelligent, thoughtful, generous and kind, busy but not too busy, very much in control of his time. The likes of he and healthy pensioners like me have it very good, all things considered.
I should say here that health is essential, if one is to enjoy old age rather than endure it. Without health, meaning a reasonably (don’t hope for completely) painless freedom of movement and thought, subjective time works against you. Pain in particular stretches time abominably, as surely we all know. Certainly, health is far more of an issue than money, though money, as also we all know, while it cannot buy everything, pays for all our domestic comforts, be they necessity or luxury, so the more you have the better these things can be arranged. For those who don’t have a lot of money in old age, fortunately patterns are set, budgets are regular, there are no luxuries to be sought, not least because such luxuries as there may have been have long since become necessities. Barring any disruption, things tick along. There is time for contemplation. Hence this essay.
Forgetfulness is another thing with two sides to the coin. I’ve noticed that along with the slackening of urgency in everyday life, goes any sense of importance attaching to any event or obligation. Things level out. One is easily distracted, thinking of something else entirely, so one might leave a shop without taking the things you just paid for, or without your hat or stick or whatever. The experience of walking into a room without a clue as to why is common and frequent. At some point this may become something much worse, a health issue, the physical destruction of the brain in one or other form of dementia, and this is tragic and frightening. But before that, and often enough without that future outcome, memory becomes less controllable in old age, and less reliable. Any sort of memory might pop into one’s mind. Sometimes it is something that needs doing, sometimes it is an experience in the past, or some obscure fact, suddenly and inexplicably recalled. The many years of one’s past become like a pack of cards soaked in honey: some separate out, some are stuck together in clumps. How long ago this or that happened is not easily defined without reference to diaries or history books, or prolonged brain wrangling, none of which always produces a definite answer. Hence my comment earlier that I should explain what “a few years ago”, or “a while ago”, or “the other day” might mean. This is a perpetual source of infuriation to people younger than fifty or so. The truth is, there is no commensurate measure of time to go with any of these phrases. It could be last year, it could be twenty years ago. Heck, twenty years ago is only 1997. If I concentrate I can see that a lot has happened in my life and in the world since 1997. But if I don’t concentrate, but merely recall something someone said in 1997, it seems it was only the other day.
It is possible this is a mechanism to diminish the weight of time, time past and time left, by making it all inconsequential, dozens of days compressed into one reference, one memory, a holiday or a job summarised in the moment when this or that happened. And of course, there is the existential idea that the only reality we can truly experience is Now. And as we have seen, according to Plank Now is a very, very short span of time.
And so to Death, or rather, the dawning reality of the notion everyone accepts but don’t entirely comprehend until it is imminent, that this life ends for all of us. Old age brings this home in a way I know I cannot adequately describe, you will just have to wait and see for yourself. The knowledge sinks in that time is limited, for you at least. For the overshadowing truth of old age is that death is coming, it really is. There is no stopping it. No habit of health, no safety precaution, no temperament or philosophy can deter it. Maybe there’s a good amount of time left, could be two or three decades, but for sure, however long it may be, it is going to be a much shorter time than the time since you were born. I should say here, I have no anticipation of dying any time soon, but I am aware that for people any age over 60, dying is unlikely to cause any surprise or shock, possibly a feeling of it being younger than necessary, but hardly unnatural. We all know our death is an inevitability, but as old age approaches, that graduates from being a truth universally acknowledged to a visceral reality. The world won’t end, but I will.
Oddly (or perhaps not), there are comforting thoughts that go along with this. Much as I love my children and their children, I would not like to be still here when they get to my age. It would be wrong, not to mention an unconscionable burden for them. An ageing parent in need of succour is always a problem, but when you get to 60 or more, it must be a dreadful extra thing to deal with. And there is something rather pleasant about imagining them looking back on one as a fond (I hope) memory, perhaps a photograph or two, and some artifacts that are reminders of the life I lived, things I made or collected. There are good reasons for death, and they’re not all about keeping the population down.
Meanwhile, I am happy to think that though it is on its way, it is not yet, not yet…