Monday, May 12, 2008

The Hedonism of Old Age

I just recently turned 49 and at the same time I have been thinking a lot about what it means to get past middle-age.

A big part of what it means to get to this age is a sense of exhaustion. Our bodies get older and aren't as resilient, but I don't think that this is the issue at hand. Certainly in my case I am probably in better shape than I have ever been since my teenage years. (All those Daoist gymnastics, don't you know.) Instead, I think that it is more a question of all the commitments that I have made in my life are eating up my time. I mentioned this to a co-worker who is my age and she said that this resonated completely with her. Indeed, she said that she had broken down just that day into tears just thinking about how little time she has in the day.

Most of us lead busy lives and our careers, interests, homes, families, etc, each take little bites out of our existence. None of them seem huge in themselves, but add together enough mouse nibbles and you get a tiger bite. Added to this is one of those mysterious aspects of aging that everyone mentions: the way the passage of time speeds up. When I think back to how long summer seemed when I was a child and compare it to the way years seem to race by now, it almost seems like a objective, physical phenomenon.

This issue emerged out of the background and entered the foreground last night. I got home from work and even contemplating the fact that I had seven days of vacation ahead of me didn't do much to move me our of my amorphous funk. Oddly enough, what did help was to sit down and watch an escapist movie. When I asked myself why, I thought of a couple things I had read by Leo Tolstoy.

The first was a parable that he had come across somewhere. It involved a man who was walking across the steppes when he was set upon by a pack of wolves. There were no trees in sight and the only refuge he could find was to jump over a cliff and hang by a small tree that was growing out of the rocks. He looked beneathe his feet and saw that at the base of the cliff a tiger was staring up at him. (The Siberian tiger lives in Russia.) As he looked at the sapling he was hanging from, he noticed that mice were gnawing away at the roots holding it to the rocks. In the midst of the predicament, the man noticed that a beehive above him was leaking honey down the rocks in front of his face. He reached out and touched it with his tongue. Nothing he had ever tasted was so sweet!

Another vignette comes from War and Peace where some cavalry men are riding off to battle. One of them has never been in a fight before and he is obsessed with it and especially concerned that he will prove himself to be a coward. Another one is an experienced veteran who has learned a very important trick of ignoring the future and focusing on the here-and-now. The only thing in his mind are the beautiful flowers on the apple trees that they are riding through.

It strikes me when I think about these venues that young people labour under an illusion of immortality. They have yet to end up hanging from that sapling on the cliff. I say "labour" for a reason. Because with that sense of immortality comes a sense of profound obligation. They have to "do the right thing" (if they are altruistic) or "get theirs while they can" (if more selfish.) But when a person gets to a certain age and gains a little wisdom it gets harder and harder to think about the big picture. Instead, the things that really seem to matter are the smell of the apple blossoms, the sweetness of honey and a cheesy Hollywood action flick.

That is why I think that old age is about developing a certain hedonism---.


WS said...

Always a pleasure to read a new post from yourself, Mr. H.

I have always felt that life's passage of time occurs as if one is treading a spiral. We are born on the outside when the revolutions are so large and take so long, and the years pass more quickly as we come closer to the center.

Funny how when one is young and time passes slowly, one's cells shed or regenerate quickly. And yet as one's cells slow the process of regeneration in old age, time passes more quickly.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Excellent observation... a really good read... thank you for expressing how I feel... I do not have the ability to express myself so fluently... I always feel the natural way for me to express myself would be through the tip of my fingers or what I create...

I work at home and rarely venture out...

Do they make invisibility cloaks???

Bao Pu said...

I've been experiencing this sort of thing as well lately---a kind of "hedonism of immediacy" I guess you could say.

I've heard the Tolstoy story before, but it's often attributed to an anonymous Zen source rather than L Tolstoy. I guess people are used to Russian wisdom coming in giant tomes rather than short stories. ;)