Saturday, October 28, 2017


The problem of ageing can be put succinctly: you are dispensable, and nothing reminds you of that fact more than the decay of your body.  Think of a life as the firing of a firework up into the sky.  It launches with great energy - it needs to be so: a baby needs to clear its throat with a good wail, and use up energy like a gannet to get started and find an arc into society.  The way we have evolved makes reproduction an equivalent to that moment a firework explodes - a bewildering and charming display of colour and movement.  But then, sooner or later, the ascent is complete, at least biologically, and energy becomes a matter of conservation rather than expansion.  There is no attention given to the expired firework husk making its way to the ground.  No one really cares where it falls... as long as it doesn't fall onto their head, or make a mess.

So, what are we to do when we ARE that firework?  When, according to biology, we have done our bit for display and noise, and are set on a course towards the ground.  Normally, to feel redundant is to feel excluded and left behind.  How can we find an attitude that copes well with the change of our bodies from capable to incapable, from smooth to wrinkled, from full to empty?

There are some positives.  Given that all things go the way of decay, the ageing person who accepts their ageing with grace is showing a great wisdom about life, a reconciliation to the way of things.  Acceptance of decay is no more or less good than acceptance of energy or acceptance of youth.  An old person who accepts their situation can be a great example to others who suffer misfortune.  They can demonstrate the art of making do with what you have.  They can console those who have suffered a loss, by reminding them that it is possible to just get by, without ambitions being achieved, without being noticed.

Our society celebrates fame, to the point where many people feel that their sense of self depends on being visible to others.  This creates illnesses born of the unfulfilled desperation for attention.  We think that adulation is rightfully ours, and chase it like the wind.  After a long time chasing it, we begin to realise that we will never be satisfied, that there is never enough fame to counteract the gradual and overwhelming disappearance of attention.  We begin to realise that we are indeed dispensable.

Age is the embodiment of this process, of the realisation that we are no more important than the fly that sits on our window sill, or the speck of dust that floats across the room.  Why is this good?  Because, ironically, it can bring us into communion with everything around us.  Earlier in our lives, we have been chasing attention, and attention is necessarily self-focused.  The need for attention is based on the principle that we are more important than others.  And, as you know if you have the least idea about human relations, such selfishness is isolating.  Two people competing to selfishly fulfil their needs will increasingly come to feel isolated from each other.  In our consumer society, we are trained to drain the world around us for our own benefit.  The planet can be raped, others can suffer, resources can be drained... as long as our selfish needs are recognised and fed.  But when we realise, through necessity, that our own benefit has no meaning - that we are no more important than a rock - when we realise this, we can relax and stop fighting for ourselves.  That self was a mythical self anyway.  It did not really exist.  And there is nothing like death to prove the futility of the self.  Try being selfish when you are dead.  You won't be able to.

So what am I saying?  That we are like fireworks, up one minute, and falling down the next.  That, although our biology convinces us for a while that we are important and worthy of resources, we are not.  That becoming old with grace is accepting this fact, and understanding a beautiful truth that we are not a separate system from everything around us, but part of everything.  In terms of physics, growing old is a living-out of our togetherness with the world around us, until, at our death, whether we are buried, cremated, or something else, we finally join it, and are gone at the same time.

Well-accepted, age is a chance to be relieved of the terrible illusion of selfishness, and to relax in the fact that we need not hang on so dearly, express ourselves so violently.  But it all depends on how willing you are to regard yourself as dispensable.