Over the years I’ve become old enough, or perhaps wise enough to fear my own demise, however, death still has a mysterious quality to it. Thinking about death reminds me of what they say you should do if come face to face with a grizzly bear, presumably after shitting a protective perimeter outside your tent has failed to discourage the curious creature. Apparently you must back away slowly while keeping eye contact, and trying your best to look inedible. It’s great advice, but it’ll never happen to me. And so it is with death. And while I understand how all this works, having seen others come and go, quietly and violently so, I’m yet to feel it in my bones.
What has me worried is none other than death’s warm-up act: stagnation. I can’t recall ever thinking to myself that whatever I had, wherever I was, and whatever I was doing was the blueprint for the rest of my life. I’ve been fuelled by the crazy notion that there has to be more than this, and more importantly, that I can be more than what I am in my current configuration.
Initially, I didn’t want to grow up because I knew that it meant the end of the bonds we had developed during the first few years of school life. We’d all go our separate ways at the end of the day, some would move house and the rest of us would find our way through at least another six years of standardised education inside the prison walls of secondary school.
Later, I was reluctant to age because of the social pressure to do so, and the responsibility that went with it. ‘This is what teenagers are supposed to be like’ the manual said, which only served to make the business of growing up that much more depressing, because the guidebook on how to be a teen slowly turned out to be one big checklist of things I hadn’t done, and things I was missing out on.
I must have spent so long thinking about my wish to never age, that I failed to notice it had finally set upon me. I was old. At least by my own standards ten to fifteen years ago, and I guess by those of other children. What was more frightening though, was that everyone else had gotten older during this time. People had gone from being children, to spawning ones of their own, and most seemed to be getting ready to settle down in one way or another. Like compliant layers of sediment waiting their turn to form the foundation of the next pour soul’s grave.
These people had made it through school in a mad rush, only to find a nice comfortable chair in which to sit while death approached with an agonizingly slow limp, wringing his bony hands together with arthritic certainty.
I had wasted the prime of my life being depressed and isolated, but apparently I’d been doing things in the wrong order, as this phase was actually reserved for retirement.
Growing old gracefully means not having to be sedated and restrained when the goons from the care home come to escort you to your final resting place. It means wearing beige and casually blending into the décor like faded wallpaper.
Growing old means deteriorating, and making way for younger, more interesting beings who deserve the space and resources more than you do. Out of the way grandpa, you’ve had your turn.
But to me, to grow old means precisely that: to grow, to change, to improve and evolve into old age, which is not some inevitable stage in everyone’s life, but a state which must be sought and achieved, or earned even.
This is the realisation that I have come to over the past five years or so, that things are actually supposed to be better the older you get. Even taking our physical body and its finite ability to regenerate and heal into account, on average, life should improve over time. Given that I will continue to learn and seek out new experiences and challenges, old age simply looks like a better version of where I am now. Instead of looking back over the past 15 years and wishing for more of the same, I wonder how I survived in such a naïve form, and look forward to being wiser, more experienced and better equipped to go on living.
What has truly put the fear of God into me is the threat of stagnation, because like death, it can happen to anyone at any time, and comes in many forms.
We seem to be equipped with a natural tolerance for repetition and sameness which varies from subject to subject. We might easily live our entire lives in the same house in the same town in the same city, but we are unlikely to last very long eating the same meal three times a day every day. Part of the problem is that in the post-industrialised society, repetition is woven into its fabric, through systems of specialisation and mass-production, which includes the education systems.
Not only do we expect specialisation, but we accept such stagnation as the norm. We’re still vicariously living the dreams of our parents and the generations before them, instead of fashioning a future of our own. Life has become routine, because routine is a necessary and efficient way of getting work done. This is all very well for machines, but it’s not what we as humans are here for.
Change is probably the most important defining characteristic of life itself. If something is only influenced by external circumstances, then it has no life of its own; it is inanimate.
Habits, rules, regulations, guidelines, categories, styles, labels, biases and shortcuts are just some of the ways in which we become bound by a static way of life, both mentally and physically. And as I’ve sat here to write this, a part of me died so that these words will live on.