Two points about growing old

cartoon of person with very large head. GIANT BRAIN IS FULL! On the left, numerous dates, with some falling into the puddle of forgotten dates. On the right, a Word Map with random words of random size. Tiny ones are falling into a compost bin.
Growing old means weeding the accumulated data cluttering up the giant brain

Although he is barely middle aged, Tim Dowling has a keen eye for how things have changed for him since he was young. He makes certain points about growing old that are rather different from what we usually read. He got me thinking. His first point:

The real difference between youth and age is not physical, or even mental. It’s just the added weight of all the years piled up behind you. You can call it experience if you want, but having a considerable past doesn’t necessarily confer any wisdom. It just compresses time so that things that happened last week and things that happened in the mid-1980s sit side by side in your memory. This isn’t a problem as long as you restrict your conversational circle to other old people.

Here’s what I’ve learned about growing old. Tim Dowling, The Guardian, 8 June 2022

That’s such a weird thought. My friend just met someone who had never heard of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong or Porgy and Bess. Someone young, who would be equally amazed at our cultural lacunae. Point number 2 helps to show how we cope with this enormous database:

2 Being old also means having to contend with the enormous, invisible volume of everything you have done and completely forgotten about. At the age of 20 you’ve lived so little you can remember virtually all of it; by the age of 60 you will have forgotten entire holidays, scores of books you’ve read, hundreds of arguments, upwards of a thousand former acquaintances, all the popular music released between 1999 and 2004, and at least 10 Netflix passwords. This isn’t memory loss – just a natural shedding of things your brain has deemed superfluous.

Dowling (Ibid.) Finally I get to use that word.

Middle age: a different mindscape

Add point number one to point number two and you get a very, very different mindscape even before you reach retirement age. One that you simply cannot imagine when you are young.

You know so much! From reading, hearing, viewing, and being there. And consequently, an ever-increasing number of things, events, people all have to shuffle around in that finite-sized receptacle and processor, your brain.

Some things you forget, some things gain huge significance, some you go Meh! and they slide into the Puddle of Forgotten Dates or the Compost Bin of Insignificant events.

But which items swell up to become massively important and which ones dwindle away into the distance? That, to me, is a fascinating question. And especially, why? Why do you recall your cat’s death so vividly, and why are you the only person in the world who doesn’t remember the moment they heard about Princess Diana’s car crash? Why is Doris Day more significant to you than Cate Le Bon? Why does war in Ukraine loom larger in your mind than war in Afghanistan, or (in each case) vice versa? Does the size of words in your life’s word cloud really, truly match the scale of their impact on your life?

Is this hierarchy of memories and knowledge constructed by chance or chronology or choice? More and more I discover that choice is sometimes an option. In other words, I can choose to choose what to retrieve and cherish in my mind. I can choose not to be pushed around by things that—from the perspective of old age—are ultimately, objectively, not that important. Not saying it’s easy. But it’s worth a try, perhaps with a little bit of help.

Tim Dowling makes 11 other points about growing old in this article, and I’ll comment on a couple more another day. Have a good one!

Follow Write Into Life

18 thoughts on “Two points about growing old

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    I agree. It’s an excellent article … and he’s only just turning 60!

  2. Such a wise young man. Certainly much to think about. I will share your post to friends.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Judith! That is the highest compliment.

  3. I really think you deserve another award, the PIE award. Perfect IBID employment!
    It’s not often that the term can be sneaked in to a blog post.
    I salute you!

  4. Those were very interesting points.

  5. Ally Bean says:

    I like the idea of weeding my brain. It seems like sound advice, kind of like Mary Engelbreit’s drawing that says: stop watering dead plants. Of course, now I don’t know if you’re familiar with M.E. so maybe I’ve referenced something that old me only knows about.

  6. As we get older there are so many things from the past jostling for attention in our brains that I hope there’s room to experience all the new things. I like the weeding analogy but immediately think isn’t a weed just a plant in the wrong place?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, let’s be sure to keep adding novelty or finding novelty in our lives. That’s certainly a standard Western definition of weeds, and we could explore that further…

  7. Also at nearly 62 I would like to believe I am just entering middle age 😁

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think that’s pretty accurate. At 82 I am acutely aware that it’s a different kind of old age from that of 90 year olds. We keep on developing until we don’t.

      1. That’s true. My dad is nearly 90 and just starting to feel he is slowing down a bit. I have some health problems with PMR but hopefully that will pass soon and I will feel younger than I do now! Meanwhile I also keep going and I hope I am still developing and ready to be surprised and interested. For one thing I’m trying to deal with stress in new ways – and have been set on that path just because I have polymyalgia. So even something that debilitating can be a help in the long run. I get to have blissful afternoon rests and am lucky to have that dreaming time, which I haven’t allowed myself since I was a child.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Wow, that’s the attitude that brings happiness in old age. Thank you, I am learning from you.

  8. debscarey says:

    I was always famed for my excellent memory, and I’m not liking that no longer being the case for EVERYTHING. I’ve come to believe that my brain is overly full – like a computer (or camera card) with only a certain amount of space to hold things. I’d love to have a conscious weeding, but have to content myself with knowing when I know something, and allowing the old synapses time to fire and find their way to where I’ve filed it. Frustrating though, but I’ve never been good at gardening so I’d probably pull out the pretty flowers and leave in the weeds 😉

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s normal to find our memory is undergoing age-related changes and normal not to like it! Especially if an excellent instant memory has always been part of your identity. Hooray for those interesting weeds. I’m going on a foraging workshop next Sunday!

  9. Joared says:

    I’m curious about the “weeding” process which seems to me to be quite an unconscious activity. What determines a “weed”? What I would weed and what I would preserve seem not to be what I would want. I’m often surprised at remembrances that come unsolicited into my consciousness and why they do so. Why do I still remember the name of a boy with a very large head who sometimes soiled his pants that sat in front of me in first grade? Or I recall the full name of the boy who sat in front of me who had dirty wax-filled ears in one of my other grades? I even visualize both settings. There must be so many other experiences that were happily joy-filled during those same years. Where are some of those memories? What is the process for conscious weeding?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m afraid the weeding of our memories is out of our control. I believe that strong emotion plays a big part and maybe you were disgusted by these two unfortunate boys 🙂

  10. What a fantastic article. Love it!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you!

%d bloggers like this: