Margaret Atwood once commented, “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.” Today I have some thoughts on getting older.
In the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past, upon walking into a party, Proust’s narrator at first thinks that his friends are all dressed in costumes from a bygone era. It is then that he realizes that this is not the case, it is simply that he and his friends have grown old while he was not paying attention.
And now I began to understand what old age was-old age, which perhaps of all the realities is the one of which we preserve for longest in our life a purely abstract conception, looking at calendars, dating our letters, seeing our friends marry and then in their tum the children of our friends, and yet, either from fear or from sloth, not understanding what all this means, until the day when we behold an unknown silhouette … which teaches us that we are living in a new world; until the day when a grandson of a woman we once knew, a young man whom instinctively we treat as a contemporary of ours, smiles as though we were making fun of him because it seems that we are old enough to be his grandfather-and I began to understand too what death meant and love and the joys of the spiritual life, the usefulness of suffering, a vocation, etc. (Proust, Time Regained 6:354-55)
On Saturday, I heard the name of an acquaintance on NPR. She was listed as the Production Assistant on a program that I have listened to over the years, though I have never heard her name before. This is a “real job” and more and more people that I know are getting or already have them.
“God knows!” exclaimed he at his wit’s end; “I’m not myself–I’m somebody else–that’s me yonder-no–that’s somebody else, got into my shoes–I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!” (Irving, Rip Van Winkle)
Our identities change as we age. We find friendships in unexpected places and grow distant from those whom we previously considered ourselves inseparable. Our life’s choices trail behind us like unfurling banners. There is a point of realization where our identities experience a crisis, where we are fundamentally changed by a revelation about who we are or what we have, unbeknownst to ourselves due to how gradually it has occurred, become.
How does one come to terms with age, with major changes? Graduating high school, graduating college, getting a job, getting married, having children. I can see friends of mine at every step of this road, or rapidly approaching it. It is overwhelming.
Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small? (Harnick, “Sunrise, Sunset,” Fiddler on the Roof)
The above lyrics were written for a wedding scene, yet they encapsulate the emotions I feel looking at those within my immediate social circle. Like Proust at his party, suddenly those I know have all grown up. One of my friends recently informed me that she was no longer interested in wearing t-shirts, because they read as too young to observers and thus unprofessional. Many are preoccupied with bank accounts, purchasing a home, picking out wedding invitations. Everybody has become extraordinarily busy with their own lives and lacks time to socialize like we used to. How did this happen? When did the things we cared about as teenagers shift so radically?
“Would it be possible for me to see something from up there?“ asked Milo politely.
“You could,” said Alec, “but only if you try very hard to look at things as an adult does.”
Milo tried as hard as he could, and, as he did, his feet floated slowly off the ground until he was standing in the air next to Alex Bings. He looked around very quickly and, an instant later, crashed back down to the earth again.
“Interesting, wasn’t it?” asked Alex.
“Yes, it was,” agreed Milo, rubbing his head and dusting himself off, “but I think I’ll continue to see things as a child. It’s not so far to fall.” (Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)
I feel at once attracted and repulsed by these changes in those I know (and of course, I myself am not immune to them.) I both question what sort of people could create a society that forces its “young” people (though what does that word mean? I do not think of myself as young anymore, but I expect a large segment of the population would.) to engage in such contortions for which many of them are entirely unprepared. If you were to ask me, “are you ready to own a house and property, and be responsible for their maintenance and upkeep?” I would reply in the emphatic negative, yet there is no magic switch that changes homeownership qualifications from a “no” to a “yes.” This applies triple for things like child-rearing.
I have nothing to say that has not been said in the past by others more eloquent than I. The above reads to me as nothing but platitudes. I imagine that I am not the only one I know wrestling with this leviathan, yet we must all grapple with it for ourselves. I am still fighting.