Wednesday, 1 July 2009

In fits and starts towards the final stop

It seems reasonable to suppose that we advance through time in a reasonably regular way. And at the most banal, physical level, that’s pretty much the case: we age by about a day every twenty-four hours.

But as soon as you take moral and emotional qualities into account, you can see that progress is far from smooth. In a real sense, for instance, we age not at all for 364 days only to add a year on our birthday. That’s why we celebrate the occasion with such enthusiasm when we’re young, and why the enthusiasm wanes so quickly when we get older.

As well as the simple passage of time, there are also events that lead to wild swings in the tempo at which we age. The arrival of my first child overwhelmed an astonishing number of my habits of thought. Suddenly I was no longer the younger generation. I had to learn not to look behind me for a much loved, and older, man when someone said ‘Daddy’.

The loss of that much loved figure forced me to take another major step. It was bad enough when my grandparents died: a wrench, grieving, the sense of loss of people who had marked my childhood indelibly. But when my father went, it was far more devastating. Obviously, in part because he was so much more significant in my life and so much closer to me. But also because a barrier that stood between me and my own grave had gone. Suddenly I was next in line.

The impact of that moment was almost as great as the trauma of realising my own mortality for the first time. I can’t remember how old I was – under five I think – but I remember the intensity of the emotions clearly. As I became aware of the universality of death, my first realisation was that I couldn’t count on my parents being around for ever. It was inconceivable that a day might come when I would have to get by without their protective presence, but I was just going to have get used to the idea. And then another thought began to form in my mind: if death was really universal, then that meant that I too some day would die. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep at night for quite a while after that, and to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever really come to terms with the realisation: I’ve just been living in a state of permanent denial ever since.

Denied or not, time keeps going by. There was a wry moment when I realised I regarded fifty, which had always been an age of advanced decrepitude to me, as not really all that old at all. And then came the realisation that even fifty was quite a way behind me.

On top of that, there is now a little girl out there who calls me ‘Granddad’. She’s well into her fifth year now, so you can imagine that she’s been doing it a while. But for most of that time, I couldn’t really get used to it: I heard ‘Granddad’ and thought of the man who bore that title for me for so many years, irascible but kindly, white-haired but sprightly – I remember him impressing the heck out of me when he sprinted for a bus at the age of 70. But this weekend, while we were visiting our family in Edinburgh, I realised that I was responding completely naturally to being called ‘Granddad’. It had become my own name.

To be absolutely fair, I have to admit that I also kept looking up at the call of ‘Daddy’. Still not quite used to that not being me.

Oh, well. Time, I’m told, is the devourer of things. Feels more like a gentle gnawing by toothless gums, but in the end it’s as sure as anything else.

Michel de Montaigne, with no less than Cicero as his authority, claims that philosophy is learning to die. Perhaps that’s why I work on all these little pieces.

Except who needs to learn to die? As far as I can tell, trained or untrained, everyone who’s had to do it has managed perfectly well. No-one, as far as I know, has ever ultimately failed to die.

It’d be interesting to try though, wouldn’t it? Can you imagine, being the first person to have made a failure of dying?

What would such a failure make that person – a sorry loser or the most extraordinary success?


Mark Reynolds said...

And this is why my child, when he/she comes, will call me Mr Reynolds.

Aya said...

Hey Grandad! Thanks for the lovely bed time stories.

I look forward to you reading me your more grown up stories when I'm older ...

Anonymous said...

And doesn't this make you think it is really important living your every moment best way you can?

I know it will sound pedantic but none of us has a signed contract with the big guy up there that we are actually going to grow old before dying.

Getting old and even older can be a very self-improving, ego-less experience that, if we allow it, can benefit others in a very profound way.

And hell, some of us won't even live to be old!

Good luck getting there... enjoy every second of it in good health and better spirits!

Awoogamuffin said...

When I first learned of my own mortality, I felt shocked at the idea that the world could continue existing without me. Surely nobody would let that happen?

David Beeson said...

The world existing after us? Not much of an existence...

David Beeson said...

To Anonymous: you're right, of course - we have to make the most of what we have - and I've always said that there's only one way to avoid growing old, which is to die young.

As you say, it happens to far too many people as it is...