As I grow older, I resist binary division _ something being “this or that.” And yet, it is such a natural and useful way to think. An example is our experience of time as being either a “cycle or an arrow.” Do we see this moment as a unique part of a journey, or a repetition of something we have done before and will do again. In full complexity and contradiction, I realize that both perspectives are true and false at the same time, and moreover that time itself is a slippery concept not only beyond binary understanding, but beyond any comprehension at all.
My essay is really about how to view my life (as an elder, I frequently waste time considering such things, rather than doing something useful.) I have increasingly come to view my past as a series of stages on a long parabola of change. There are lots of people who resist thinking of time as an arrow. Their internal perspective is a perpetual cycle, in which they view themselves as forever thirty. At twelve years old, they have planned their future, and they continue to map imagined days to come as they near eighty and beyond. Working at a purpose from adolescence until death, doing the best they can, unwavering exemplars of ants on a mission.
For fortunate survivors of life’s lotteries, time should be a varying gift. Existence is remarkably different for a child, an adolescent, a young adult, a mature adult, an aged adult, and an old geezer. And all the stops in between. That biggest chunk of “middle age” also has its own subsets, some more definitive than other. Ask any woman past menopause, or a professional athlete nearing forty. People tend to refer to aging as a series of “losses”, but the proper way to see it is as ongoing fractal gifts which allow us to examine our universe in different ways.
Ancient Greeks were right in describing their immortal gods as silly, shallow people. Endless cycles are simply monotony, good or bad. Buddha strove to escape that wheel. Masters of the Universe in our economic society are equally foolish, equally shallow _ old charioteers who claim they are just as good or better at whatever they always have done as they were when young. Even if they are _ what a sad and claustrophobic trap they have set themselves. All the cosmos to explore and they happily prowl a tiny cage of their own construction.
Should we not fear death? I suppose _ it is almost inconceivable _ except that we do approach it each night as we fall asleep. Personally, I more fear incapacity, and I have always feared suffering. Death is just an ending. What we live is far more important. When we define our lives as simply routine cycles _ go to work, make money, for example _ our whole being can be written in a few pages. A journey, on the other hand, goes on and on through volume after volume, each amazingly different as each year and decade provides new challenge and response.
Western thought dreads the purposelessness of oblivion, hoping for “life after death” or meaning in the advance of civilizations. Its myths teach of eternal heroes, salvaged from whisper by mighty deeds of honor. Heroes whose memory will live forever. It dreads the claim of science that the cosmos is temporary, that not only does everyone die, not only are all deeds and civilizations eventually dust, but also the universe itself will encounter a definite and complete ending. Some retreat into hopelessness, or hedonism, or denial. Everyone is affected. Can there be purpose when everything is doomed?
Not all human thought is Western, of course, even though that dominates our current world. Other cultures, and more ancient civilizations, survived happily and comfortably with a mythology and philosophy that easily encompassed temporary achievement and death. Some animists thought that there were three stages of a person’s existence _ actual life, remembrance by others after death, and the final forgetting. Others taught that gods and fate were fickle and much of went on in heaven was irrelevant to our common day to day reality. All such peoples were not lost in morose contemplation of ultimate meaning.
So I wake up in a world where there are truly troubles and my own small cares. But there are also wonders around me. I concentrate on the wonders, grateful for their experience, and honestly do not care at all what will come after I am incapable of knowing.