It wasn’t so much his age that worried him, Peter Cohen explained to his doctor. It was the idea of it; but no matter how much the physician assured him that he was in perfect health, that his prostate, cholesterol, blood pressure, and reflexes were those of a much younger man; and no matter how many actuarial tables showing excellent life expectancy for a man of his age, health, and family background, Peter still woke up every morning with ‘existential angst’.
There was nothing that could dispel the gloom he felt when he woke up. The number 75 flashed in front of his eyes every morning bright and clear.
1966 Batman Bat Signal
Soon it would flash 76, a particularly important milestone the way he calculated the passing years. What others noted – decades and half-decades – he treated without ceremony or especial worry. It was the first off years on the downside of a decade - the 6s and 7s – which troubled him most. Seventy-five was a kind of actuarial firewall, a round number which when spoken by a vigorous man like himself signified a professional and physical well-being. Successful years accomplished with many more to come.
Seventy-six on the other hand stood on its own and had to be taken for what it was – old, shaky, and unpredictable. Seventy-five had an impressive ring to it. It encompassed all of late middle age, and still had promise and even potential; but seventy-six was an unmistakably unpromising number which signified only an irritable twelve months. It was an uncompromising number.
“If I alter the perception of time”, Peter thought, “perhaps I can slow it.”
People who have been in car accidents report that everything happened in slow motion. Thanks to this slowing down of time they can remember the car hurtling towards them, the look of the hood crumpling under the force of the collision. The glass windshield spiders out slowly and they can remember how its patterns were formed. The coffee thrown upwards towards the roof of the car, then coming down in a long, thick stream. It is not that time has actually slowed down, but that people are so busy recording each and every detail of such an important event, that it simply seems that way.
Others wake up to find that it’s Friday again and find it hard to remember where the rest of the week went.
Older people report the quick passage of time most often. Their lives are necessarily circumscribed by routine because of physical debility, fewer friends, and the increasing difficult of moving around and about. Without changes in perspective and welcome departures from routine, one day does indeed seem like every other. Older people feel this sense of the quickness of time most acutely because the loss is irretrievable. Their lives have been lived, and the accelerated passage of those few years left is depressing. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies time adds another dimension:
The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass (Huffington Post, op.cit.)
There is no doubt that routine is the main culprit, concluded Peter Cohen. He found it depressing to make tea every morning. Didn’t he just warm the pot, heat the milk, select the tea, pour the water, fit the cozies, and carry the tray to his study?
Yet even if he altered the routine, the passage of time was as fast as it ever had been. He was too old to acquire new experiences and memories to slow the clock down, and God forbid he wanted no accidents or tragedies in his life.
So it all boiled down to dealing with ‘the future’, a nice way of saying death, but at seventy-five he still felt he could afford himself some sugar-coating. There would be plenty of time before he had ‘that’ night visitor.
The main character of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich had been very careful in configuring his life in such a way as to avoid unpleasantness. He kept his wife and children in their dacha for much of the year, installed himself in a comfortable townhouse in the city; dealt obliquely with his creditors and congenially but never intimately with his colleagues; and until the onset of his terminal illness was quite proud of his achievements. Facing death he quickly realized that his constructions had come to nothing and he was facing his own unconscionable end entirely alone and without preparation.
He would never be like Ivan Ilyich, Peter thought, for he had always been a thoughtful, contemplative man. He had never been afraid to conclude that life had no meaning or there was no God. If anything he had been obsessed with finding out what’s what before he got too old to do anything about it. Definitely no Ivan Ilyich for him.
“Take every day at a time” was the advice given to him by a friend. “What else can you do?” Although meant sincerely and with more philosophical salience than he had given credit for, it was still hard for him to accept. Parceling off the rest of one’s life in practical, easily digestible bits to avoid existential gas made some sense; but that required patience, discipline, and a sense of practicality that he had never had. He could never focus only on the Camry, the new furnace, the gym, and what to have for dinner. Days, no matter how routine, were more like rooms with cracked walls which let in drafts and unpleasant thoughts.
“I’ll write you a prescription”, said his internist once he realized that good blood work results and promising actuarial tables had not made a dent in Peter’s armor. “Take care of it in no time”.
Medicating the problem, Peter initially thought, was no solution at all. One had to come to grips with these existential issues. Hard, sharp reality was what was called for.
“Yes, but with drugs you’ll forget that there even are existential issues", said his friend. "That’s the beauty of it all.”
Peter had been brought up too strictly and with too much respect for Torah, the Law, study, and reason to be swayed. If there was any meaning at all to life it was in the validation of the individual; and that either it came from a Nietzschean expression of will or at least an intellectual defiance. If a man was worth anything; if courage meant anything at all, the value was in confrontation, not retreat. Job was his hero.
Tolstoy had been preoccupied with questions of meaning for most of his life. As expressed through his character Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina), Tolstoy saw the irony of a creation of human beings with intelligence, wit, insight, creativity, and humor but who were destined to live only a few short decades and then spend the rest of eternity in the cold, hard ground of the Russian steppes.
In his fifties, Tolstoy simply wore out. After years of research on philosophy, theology, science, literature, mathematics, and history he had come up empty. How was it that millions – no, hundreds of millions of people – had come to believe in God without years of exhausting study?
“They must be on to something”, he said; then relaxed and backed into faith.
Tolstoy wrote of epiphanies and believed in them; and this revelation, as simple and as obvious as it was, counted as a big one. Not only did he give up his secular research, but became a religious evangelist.
“He must have been on to something”, said Peter, referring to Tolstoy.
Old age should not be a country for old men, he thought. If we haven’t sorted things out before now, then it’s too late. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, he said to no one in particular; but realized that he would never be smart, and the most he could hope for was not to be terrified; and that was not a function of brains but faith. Ah, the irony of it all, he thought.