Once we reach adulthood, most of us believe we possess a permanent essence. We are not identical to others but unique and different, expecting to remain much as we are.
Holding this belief, we plan for the future, assuming our happiness will depend on whether we achieve our twenty-something goals.
Ah, but goals change, at least for many. Moreover, the exact form of our transformations can’t be predicted. Here is a simple example:
As a boy, I loved vanilla ice cream, chocolate less, strawberry never.
In middle age, I discovered I fancied the strawberry flavor, like my father, and now, as my oldest grandson does.
My first awareness of such possible alterations began in 1971 when I listened to a radio broadcast of the Mahler Symphony #2 given the year before at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. Leonard Bernstein (LB) conducted.
The 80-minute Resurrection Symphony (as it is called) moved me to make myself a promise. If I ever had enough money to take a trip to wherever LB performed it again, I’d do so.
Time passed. I completed school, and my professional life began. Bernstein continued his own.
After more than 15 years, I read the announcement I’d been waiting for. The New York Philharmonic would offer the music under Lenny’s baton in April 1987. I made the trip.
You could say I expected too much. Perhaps. But veteran music lovers recognize no two performances are identical, even within the same few days. The rendition was fine, but the rocket to the celestial realm failed to arrive.
The simple answer was this: Lenny and I were more than a decade older. Before the downbeat, I’d attended a few live presentations of the same work, caught many recordings of the composition, and lived a fistful of years.
That slice of my existence contained numerous shake-ups, shake-offs, amendments, revisions, complications, joys of the heart, and tweaks of all kinds. Tempests arrived and departed, fears were faced and faded, and triumphs and defeats lived in and through.
I imagine the conductor would have said something similar, though he came in an older body, one he was wearing out.
In its entire nature, the aging process can’t be anticipated. We cannot predict who we will become, no matter what we believe.
We understand mortality not at all unless a near-death experience has convincingly threatened us. Our knowledge of personal death is otherwise abstract, neither gripping nor complete.
Just so, imagining the fullness of the career I enjoyed was unknown, nor how my children and patients would transform me.
Does your crystal ball foresee what doors will open to you, what people you will encounter, the accidents ahead, or the betrayals of your body by your body?
Who can predict the lucky breaks, world events to be written in history books, the kind and unkind people around the corner, or the impact of a thousand other things?
Neither your brain nor your physical makeup is a stationary entity.
According to the April 1, 2021 issue of Scientific American*, “In 80 to 100 days, 30 trillion (cells) will have replenished—the equivalent of a new you.” The automated process will reinvent you to some degree regardless of your best efforts in exercise and diet.
Trust me, you will not be the same and shouldn’t be the same, given the tuition-free experience of a lifetime.
Were you to meet your older self on the street, you might perceive the resemblance but not the full character of the fellow.
I’d venture that most of us believe the wisdom of the old is the gift of self-awareness and experience rather than changes to the operation of our brain and body. If the common man is correct, how do we account for the extraordinary intensity of emotion we observe in an active child?
He did not learn this.
In our teens, we continue to possess a similar intensity, perhaps more on occasion. Still, it begins to decline so that many unwise, unthinking, non-self-reflective souls often appear sedate and thoughtful before their end.
Rather than supposing such a one grew from increasing mastery and reconsideration of his mistakes, I’d venture his body often took the lead in the mellowness and acceptance the years delivered.
In Plato’s Republic, the author recalls a conversation between Socrates and an aged friend:
Socrates: There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travelers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.
And this is a question I should like to ask of you who have arrived at that time which the poets call the ‘threshold of old age’: Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?
Cephalus: I will tell you, Socrates, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says, and at our meetings the complaint of my acquaintances commonly is, ‘I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away; there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life.’
Some complain of the slights put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly how many evils their old age is the cause.
But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really at fault. For if old age were the cause, I too, being old, and every other old man would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known.
How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles. He was asked, ‘How does love suit with age, Sophocles? Are you still the man you were?’ He replied, ‘Peace! Most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.
Four points should be emphasized:
- Socrates was about 71 at the time of his death.
- Years before, he could not have forecast that he would be sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens by encouraging in them the thoughtful questioning he practiced.
- A reduction in sex drive is standard in aged men, many of whom are at relative peace with it. No man in his prime would find the decline or the acceptance imaginable. Of those who maintain an active sex life in old age, few say the experience is as mindblowing as during their sexual heyday.
- There is much to enjoy for curious seniors who maintain adequate but imperfect health, good luck, and enough money to meet their needs without significant concern. Other advantages include a sense of calm, freedom from many worries and responsibilities, self-acceptance, and gratitude for what remains. Of course, the present is not identical to their past life. Much of their joy comes from friendship, children, and grandchildren, not heroic achievements.
Shakespeare, among others, noted we are “time’s fool,” meaning that time plays with us as ancient kings did with their court jesters (also called fools), kept nearby to entertain the monarch.
We do not know how much time we have and who we will be as we progress through whatever allotment comes our way. Nor is the breathtaking acceleration of the day’s pace conceivable until we find each 24 hours speeding ahead.
Best to fulfill your hopes early, especially if their fulfillment requires the energy, enthusiasm, and intensity a young body was made for.
Bucket lists come without guarantees. If it is unlikely that you can grasp the experience of mid-life and old age ahead of time, the list may need unexpected revision.
Those much older folks look strange, don’t they?
You see, I am time’s fool, as well.
I laugh more than ever in playing my part.
If “all the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare said, I have been well cast.
*The authors of the Scientific American article are Mark Fischetti and Jen Christiansen.
All of the images above are sourced from Wikiart.org/ In order from the top, they are Futuristic Woman, 1911, by David Burliuk, Flight to the Future by Wojciech Siudmak, Teiresias Foretells the Future of Odysseus by Henry Fuseli, ca. 1800, and Future, 1943, by Agnes Lawrence Pelton.