On the mild disappointment of getting older

In November, I read an article in the Times written by Walter James, who turned 100 last year. It was entitled, “I remember love, just not how it feels”. It was a beautifully written and poignant article, about both the practical hazards of a frail body, and the decline of sensibility that old age brings with it. The anticipation of future pleasures, and the remembered pleasures of the past have lost meaning, because he can no longer remember the emotional colour of his past achievements, the feeling of falling in love or desiring a woman. He describes a moment of great elation in his life, when he won a college rowing competition at Oxford. He knows exactly what happened, and what it meant to him, but he can no longer feel the passion it evoked at the time.  He writes:

Those exalted feelings, gladdening my heart and lightening my days, have been lost. All I can do now is imagine them. My mind, my memory, has kept the bones, but lost the flesh around them.

Since I find a dullness setting in even over the last 20 years of my life, it is quite dispiriting to think that it will only increase.

When I was a little girl, I wanted so much to be grown up, to make my own decisions and do all the exciting things life had in store for me. In fact everything that happened was exciting, even going to see what sweets the shop had for sale. I could hardly wait for time to pass. It seemed to pass very slowly, each year seeming in my memory to extend into a gilded long stretch of sunshine, games and birthday parties.

When I was about 15, I realised that adult life didn’t really have that much to recommend it. I was sitting in a café with my father, and he seemed vaguely worried about money, I think.  Everyone seemed so busy all the time, and if they weren’t worrying about bills, they were worrying about work. I thought it might be nice to stay 15 forever, with my strong limbs, boundless energy, total lack of responsibility, and endless time for playing the violin, hiding in my room (very important), or going on bike rides with friends. Then again, the emotional side of being 15 was stressful. The inner turmoil caused by my unrequited passion for a boy in my class, the pressure to get good grades, the fear of fatness, even the strength of feeling caused by finishing a very exciting book was enough to unbalance the very small sense of equilibrium I managed to acquire. I found myself and my passions quite ridiculous even then.

There is a lot to be said for being 35; you are old enough to have had some success in life, have had time to travel, and have acquired some humility along the way. You are however still young-ish and relatively strong (even if I do spend all my time whinging about tiny wrinkles and the funny angles on my neck). The highs and lows of all the fun nights out, and the subsequent mad panic of not having written my essay, or of having made a fool of myself, are hard to recall. I’ve realised I won’t change the world any more, and it doesn’t hugely bother me. I love my other half, but not in the destructive way of some past liaisons. I want to succeed, but it’s more about having a comfortable life and a nice house than thinking what I do at work will make a huge difference. Climbing is a great hobby, but it’s not as if I’ll ever climb El Cap,  nor do I particularly fancy risking my life on K2.

Enjoying youth

Even at my age, maybe indifference does start to set in, although perhaps it’s not so much the inability to relive emotion, but the fact that in hindsight the event that caused it doesn’t have much meaning or relevance to my life. I won quite a lot of rowing competitions at Oxford too, but I could never imagine taking it as seriously now as I did then – I was back then consumed with the desire to win. Over the years I think you get a bit more used to the fact that some things work out, and some things don’t, and even if you’ve invested everything in a good outcome, it might just not be your day or your year. This is something I very much like about getting older, the ability to detach myself a bit more, and feel a bit less guilty about everything. It’s a long life, and I look forward to the establishment of pleasing daily routines.

The difficulty for me is that I think the greater sense of equanimity also reduces creativity. As a child, I would always be drawing something, or writing, or inventing a random game to play. Now, I go and look at paintings in galleries, I read other people’s books, and I watch movies someone else has created. There is a sense that the zest of my life is leeching away, and must constantly be captured. It feels as if I must do everything now, before my brain runs out of time, and loses interest. There must be a reason no one writes their first novel when they’re 64.

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