So, I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day, and the sometime touchy topic of grey hairs reared itself. The conversation was brief and more than a little depressing. There's nothing like a little flash of the future to stop us in our tracks.
I think thoughts of ageing and mortality come to us all from time to time, and more often than that when you get beyond a certain age. When I'm taking stock, usually when I'm on of my long walks, or drifting towards the mountains in my mind away from my morning train and the daily grind, I always ask myself the same few questions. If I'm thinking about work I ask myself, am I doing the best job I can? Am I making a difference? You know, to the students I teach, to the people I work with, to the process of work? If I'm thinking about my life, the questions are even simpler; am I learning? Am I growing?
I've never been motivated by money, or by some meteoric rise to the ‘top’ (wherever that is). For me it’s always been more about some general notion of ‘happiness’ related in some way to personal (and professional) satisfaction... and a continuous drive for stimulation. By stimulation I mean knowledge and experience; learning and trying new things, and so on.
Bags of pace
If the answer to one of my core questions is no, then I make a change, just like I did when I went back to college and retrained to be a teacher, or when I moved to a foreign country, or when I decided to complete my doctorate. If the answer to all my core questions is yes, then I just go out and learn something new, go somewhere new, try something new.
But, it should be said, I'm also keenly aware of life as a process, with a beginning a middle and an end. You remember the famous speech in ‘As You Like It’ about the seven ages of man. I'm aware of where I am in that process and I'm not always comfortable with it, but if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me.
Sometimes the questions in my head move away from the process of life to its purpose, and like everyone else, I wonder what the hell it’s all about. At these lower, more philosophical times, nothing occurs. I have no answers, and I'm always reminded of another somewhat more depressing literary reference. There’s an image described by Pozzo in ‘Waiting for Godot’, of a girl giving birth astride a grave. 'The light gleams an instant, and then it’s night once more', we are told. It is bleak to be sure, to consider the meaninglessness of life in this way, but it's also liberating I think. What I mean is, if broadly speaking there's no specific purpose to life, except the evolutionary one of perpetuating the species, then doesn't that give us the freedom to pretty much go our own way? Do our own thing, in our own time?
... There’s a man who’s slipped and fallen into a well. Luckily, he’s managed to grab a tree root part way down. He’s just hanging there. He can’t see any way to climb up, and to fall would be certain death; he’s cold and he’s never felt so alone. He knows that no one can hear his calls for help, and he also knows he cannot hang on forever, and as he’s facing up to the inevitable, he sees out of the corner of his eye in the wall of the well, a bee’s nest dripping honey. It’s just within his reach, so he takes some and pushes his fingers to his lips. The taste, the thrill overwhelms him… and calms him… and prepares him…
Or something like that. That at the very least is it… one day we're all going to die. In the meantime, get yourself some honey.
If you're one of those people who gets hung up on 'life' regrets when you double back on the journey you're making, and ask yourself questions like; what have I done with my life? What have I achieved? Why haven't I done this yet? Why haven't I been there yet? What happened to my 20s/30s /40s? What the hell have I been doing with my life?
If you are one of those people, then you could do worse than get yourself a big bowl of (honey roasted) nuts, a couple of ice-cold beers, and watch ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or some such. That always seems to do the trick for me.
... and, relax.