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