UNITED STATES—Getting old must be one of the most misunderstood, least explained, and purposefully ignored, aspect of universal human experience.
Getting old sucks. I mean it. They say it beats the alternative, but what really is the sum of a human life? How do we evaluate which is better to have lived and endured, or worse enough to have foregone? We seldom consider the prospect of being old, unless the subject is thrust deeply into the present moment by an event or an unavoidable consequence. Being old is that period of existence right before death, so, thinking about being old means thinking about dying, and not many of us want to spend a lot of time considering what we can’t know for certain. Oh, sure, there are any number of religions that will tell you that they know, and some of them even believe it.
Once you pass 50, human existence is a long slow road downhill. Things do not work as well, even when they work at all. The best you can hope for is a gradual attrition of faculties, abilities and possibilities. As you get older, the consequences of your own stupidity have more immediacy and impact, because it takes you far longer to get over the results of your idiocy and incompetence. When you’re 23 and you sprain your ankle, it’s a couple of days of annoyance. When you’re 63, the same injury can leave you wearing a foam boot for nine months.
And we don’t tell people about this wondrous vista of mishap and calamity that they have to look forward to. We blithely ignore this basic fact of existence because we don’t want it to happen, and we seem to think that if we can only just steadfastly ignore it enough, it really won’t ever happen to us. Well, I am here to tell you that this does not work with getting old, and death, any more than it works with weight loss.
Humans are peculiar in what we want to know, and what we don’t want to know. Sometimes we both want to know something, and deny it. Sometimes we know something perfectly well, and wish we didn’t. Other times we want to know something, and don’t want to know it at the same time. “Do these pants make my butt look big?” We are a conflicted species, full of contradictions and irrational inconsistencies. But we like to think that we are a rational species with a fine command of reason and an impartial ability to apply reason to the human condition. Poppycock.
And then there are the boatload of things that a person can know perfectly well, intellectually, and have exactly zero emotional understanding of, so that they’re ipso facto irrelevant and imaginary, however real they are in fact.
When elderly people are interviewed about their life choices and asked about what they would have done differently, opinions vary and a lot of diverse answers result, but a few of them ring true for most folks. “I would have taken better care of my teeth” is a popular sentiment. “I would have managed my weight better” is another. Always seemed to me that if you kept your teeth better, you’d just be able to eat and enjoy the stuff you shouldn’t eat anyway like ice cream and pastry.
People who work with the elderly used to refer to pneumonia as a blessing, as an illness that often ended suffering. Dementia might be looked upon in a similar way, insofar as it often reduces the suffering of the person with dementia. Unfortunately, it often manifestly increases the suffering of everyone who knew the person who is now only persisting with us only in a very literal sense. And many people say that, faced with the cost and suffering their continued existence would cause those they love, they would much rather die than continue on interminably in some shadowy childlike dementia. But, how can we know what we would feel if we were actually in that state?
Personally, the thought of suicide has always seemed less attractive to me because of my appreciation of my own incompetence. Worse even than living on would be to incompletely suicide, and to burden all I love in life with caring for whatever shattered remnant of my body remained legally alive.
So, where is all this ruminating going? Well, I guess my life plan is to expend sufficient effort and trouble to maintain my body well enough to die peacefully in my sleep, hopefully after my life partner has predeceased me. That does not seem like much of a life ambition, but what do I have left really? I’ll be working until a few years before I die, and I will never have the time, money, or ability to do many of those bucket list kind of things that people talk about. I won’t be able to end war, or feed the poor, or even to improve the lot of people around my immediate vicinity very much… so when I sign off for the last time, what will be the sum of my existence?
I have children, whom I hope will be glad of existence. I have known some good people, and done some good here and there in an ordinary and pedestrian way. I’ve had some fun, and some not so fun, and done my share of celebrating and suffering. I have done less harm than I might have done. Not much to write on some cosmic ledger, but about what can you expect of an ordinary wandering mortal. It’s what I’ve come to settle for as I’ve gotten older, not all of us can be the stuff of legends, or who would read the legends?