Copyright © by Len Holman, 9/16/10
There is a saying: “Death is a distant rumor to the young.” This is, if true, right and proper and is the correct order of things. Carl Jung believed that a person is truly authentic, self-aware and has reached maturity if he or she could accept his or her own death. But youth need not be concerned, nor, generally, are they. They have things to do and places to go, and must not be deterred in their journey toward the future by thoughts of their inevitable demise.
If a young person pays attention at all to his or her life, certain things would be noticed, but they would probably be spatial in nature. Where that person was, where he or she is going, where her latest love lived, how far away the beach party is, where the concert will be—all landmarks in the world of youth. But as a person ages, these spatial landmarks become relatively insignificant compared to what is important: time. “Time,” Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sang, “is on my side,” but not to someone past the hormonal stage—though Mick doesn’t count. He’ll probably be hormonal in the coffin and SOMEONE will have to figure out a way to get the lid closed. Time is, for most people of a certain age, definitely NOT on their side, but it IS the key to the quality of their life.
It’s not that time is important only because the older one gets, the less there is—hell, you could say the same thing about men’s hair or breast density or opportunities to bungee jump naked off a bridge—all perhaps true, but trivial. The real problems with loss of time are memory and self-awareness. An older person can look back over the life previously led and decry the lost opportunities, bemoan the failures due to ignorance and inexperience, and regret that soul mate that got away. And these are not events in space, they are events in time, and time is evanescent. You can re-visit a particularly wonderful or significant landmark, as long as it stands, or lament that the place you used to live in as a child is now a vacant lot or a strip joint, but time speeds on the pale horse of Yesterday, never to be re-mounted, never to be turned to a different path. And time, of all the constructs of humans, is the most fragile and elusive of all. At least at the beginning of a person’s end. But as age sharpens and makes more significant the various acts of awareness, as the knees stiffen and the back hurts in the morning, so time moves from clouds in the far away sky to hail crashing down on one’s head. Time becomes as real to an aging person as thought is to a Buddhist, and just as important. The arrow of time points inexorably outward, toward a future unseen—close or still far away—at which the end arrives for the one whose time has come.
So, as the sun becomes colder, and the bones become more brittle, time becomes more precious and suddenly, all the landmarks of a life past are written in the language of time and illustrated with the memories of the past. Though many of those memories be faulty, they are pictures of the time past and one turns to them avidly, as to a favorite old book, perhaps forgotten once or—at best—dimly remembered, but now sought fervently and lovingly, the pages worn and creased, the pictures stained and faded from the rubbing of fingers. Time then, eventually, becomes—not an enemy to keep at bay—but a friend which brings a gift, a gift of pausing and remembering and—perhaps—accepting.
For the young, time is often a bother. Life needs to be swallowed whole, often without savoring the flavor, and times gets in the way of that: time spent in a classroom, at a family dinner, at a visit to the grandparents, on a summer vacation with the cousins. The young person thinks, “I can’t wait for this to be over so I can get on with my life,” without stopping to consider that every moment—slow or fast, rich or boring—IS life. The reverse is no better: when at the height of passion, joy, noise and celebration, the young person does not stop to look around and SEE it all, but gulps it down whole.
The person of many years begins to understand this, to appreciate it, to see that the old maxim of stopping and smelling the roses was probably created by someone old or wise or both, or perhaps a mystic in the throes of a vision from the Divine, or a man in the throes of the last stages of his prostate cancer. Though he or she cannot retrieve the time spent on life, the life remaining can be spent profitably, can be savored, like that last bite of a juicy steak. It is perhaps the only time it CAN be savored, for most of us are not the Buddha, and therefore most of us cannot be in the moment—that’s not the way humans were made, nor how they arrived here, to be commuters on the subways of new York, farmers in Nebraska, or café owners in Santa Monica.
The young view no future and the aged have all of the past, and there is a balanced, symmetrical rhythm in it all. It is up to the young to live their lives aware of the passing of time, to look around and SEE it all, as much as they can, and it is the duty of the aged to try to make the young aware that the landmarks which truly count aren’t the concerts, the sex, the new car, the travels to exotic realms, but the time one spends being alive, the making of memories to mull over at a much later time, a time when the going and coming and constant rushing of youth are seen as a waste of time. Perhaps this can never be, but it seems a pure shame to lavish the glories of a good childhood memory, the savoring of a breathtaking sunrise, the taste of a juicy slice of apricot pie, on only the old.
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