Sunday 31 October 2021

Briefly; on the Growing Sense of Insignificance that Comes with Aging

by Simbarashe Nyatsanza

Lord Chesterfield: "I look upon all that is past as one of those 
romantic dreams, which opium commonly occasions."

I will be, hopefully, turning 28 on the 10th of April this coming year, and I recently, reluctantly, came to the end of my university studies in December 2020. I was 26 years old at the time; late, somehow feeling outgrown and out of place, too aware of my fading sense of wonder and merriment with everything around me to continue on with the farce of mock-ignorance often needed for one to successfully allow themselves to be ‘educated’. 

I had to complete my studies and end the nonsense. I was also feeling quite stagnant and of stunted progress, with nothing to show for my life (if those ever-fleeting moments of glee and glum that characterized my existence back then could safely be called life). But, good god, I miss those old wicked times! Things were hard and confusing and drunken and exciting and draining and enraging and saddening and thrilling and depressing and carefree and sexy and sexual and niggerish and nightmarish and orgasmic and purifying and, sometimes, there was nothing but the rousing possibility, the potential, for more innocuous but meaningful meaninglessness. I was alive for, and because of, that. 

Memories of the debauched moments of belligerence, the often psychotic, sporadically violent and extremely intoxicating sense of selflessness that came with the demonstration of inebriated impulses during those days, now assume a faint kind of beauty that is no longer reachable, simply impossible to replicate, way out of par and incompatible with the forced sense of self-responsibility that often finds itself creeping in and enlarging in the crevices of the mind as the years add on. Yet these memories are somehow reassuring, as if they were a faint picture of a monument - the strange and saddening beauty of a wilting flower - a remembrancer of a series of moments fully exhausted, while they were exhausting - and yet the closest thing to liberation - to the very soul of the young, misguided misfit I so proudly was. 

 It often feels that it won't be long till I start describing myself as a 'once-was', or as an 'i-used-to'. Like those busy-sounding, busy losers who speak of a past laden with potential and yet say nothing of their rotten and dried out, washed up presences. Or those forcefully eccentric Africans who still speak with a misplaced ‘White’ accent ever since they went to Europe for a time as brief as a fortnight when they were as young as ten years old, who desperately hang on to a fading sense of sophistication, of a ‘difference’, who greatly overestimated their own sense of importance. Like them, it feels like it won't be long until my mind finally accepts its role as a repository for failed tests, failed relationships, failed prayers, failed exams, failed apologies, failed attempts at reconciliation, failed learning, failed loving - failed everythings, and the mouth resigns drunkenly into an amplifier of the uselessness of wisdom that comes with hindsight, always blasting even in the forced silence of one's mind. 

 It is The Irishman telling Jimmy Hover that 'It is what it is'. It is Red, in Shawshank Redemption, marking his name beneath a dead one, and then moving on. It's the red at the center of the flame that burns your fingertips as you light another cigarette that gently pushes you, drag by drag, towards permanent oblivion. It's the most gentlemanly Robert Mugabe finally dying in an Adidas tracksuit, while he always wore suits all his life. It is like shaving your hair every two days because of the gray strands that always eagerly sprout in it, reminding you of the old man whose face is starting to come out of yours, when you hadn't thought of yourself as that old. In fact, you would never have thought of yourself as old at all. It's that ageless voice inside of you, the one that keeps coming up with the reassurances, the reminders of how everyone is God's favorite child, of how there's still a chance to turn things around, to be something, like the others, finally gently screaming, “Get over yourself!” from the center of your brain. 

It's that desperate yearning for longevity, which almost comes across as a series of threatening promises of mediocrity. It's really a well crafted and articulate declaration of complacency; aging.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Simbarashe. I enjoyed a piece of literary philosophy, which seems so rare today.

I think that, whatever one's age, this experience is quite common. The child is a prodigy. The young adult is accomplished. But what the child was, or what the young adult is, will not do as age increases. Then it seems to become apparent that a 'life achievement' would be more appropriate--which need not, incidentally, be the same kind of life achievement which is feted by the world.

I see in this post 'the problem of action' of the idiosyncratic philosopher-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Or the existentialist philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard: 'Ultimately, one becomes tired of everything.' It is a serious problem for the serious thinker, and requires, I think, a solution--not the solution of Philosopher Thomas Nagel, 'Perhaps the trick is to keep your eyes on what’s in front of you.'

Keith said...

To my mind, there’s a discontinuity between being as young as 27 and what’s referred to here as a ‘growing sense of insignificance that comes with aging’.

The expanded quote by Lord Chesterfield, who lived to a then-ripe age of 78, puts ‘aging’ in perspective: ‘When I reflect back on what I have seen, what I have heard, and what I have done, I can hardly persuade myself that all this . . . had any reality. I look upon all that is past as one of those romantic dreams which opium commonly occasions’.

The operative words here are ‘reflect back on’, ‘what I have done’, ‘had any reality’, and ‘all that is past’. Chesterfield’s emphasis was on what one might call a ‘lived life’: a backward-looking reflection on a life infused with experience and chin-stroking. A genuine retrospection.

Might there be a sounder stage fifty years from now to reflect on — and maybe dispiritingly grieve, if that indeed proves fitting — a ‘sense of insignificance that comes with aging’?

As a 27-year-old, perhaps one’s energy ought to be channeled toward living a life that will be judged significant upon getting old and wizened. Isn’t that a 27-year-old’s more proper anticipatory focus?

Lord Chesterfield might have thought so, who also offered this: ‘Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well’ — interpretable, I suggest, to living life with purpose.

docmartincohen said...

Seems to me that both Simbarashe and Keith share the idea that we are one person over time. But I'm not so sure. I feel like the "Martin" of 20, 30 , 50 years ago is a stranger. He not only looked different (of course) but he thought differently. He believed things that I now see to be false. He had hopes and dreams that I no longer share. Philosophers say that what unites a person is memories - but I don't remember much of myself in my 20s, and I certainly don't remember what I carried around as my "Martin Cohen" baggage then. I don't WANT to remember these things either.

So, to respond to Simarashe's post, I don't feel like a 'once was'. Maybe (ionically) this is a youthful perspective. I'm a new person each day. For better, or worse.

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