I never really thought about the ageing process until I was twenty-five and my new employers, the South-Eastern Electricity Board, sent me to London on an induction course. I was a very timid soul in those days and it was a big adventure for me to be ‘allowed out’ on my own without either my parents or my husband to look after me. The course members came from all over the country but were billeted in the same hotel. On the second to last evening everyone decided to go down to the bar for a farewell get-together. I didn’t really want to go, but I was too shy to get out of it.
I found myself relegated to a corner table with the other lame duck of the party, a young man with a kipper tie from somewhere in Norfolk. As far as I can remember we talked about football, of which I knew nothing, and knitting, of which neither of us knew anything. However, given our mutual awkwardness, we managed. At the end of the evening he stood up and warmly grasped my hand. ‘A little frisson of excitement passed through me,’ as they say in Mills & Boons. Had I accidentally made some sort of conquest?
‘Thank you for this evening,’ he said, ‘It’s been so nice to talk to an older woman.’
I tried to put the worry out of my mind. Everyone does, don’t they?
Thirty was ghastly, depressing, miserable, but by then I had gained more confidence. I made a few lame jokes about it and survived. This year’s fortieth was not so bad, oddly enough. At least the girls at work spared me the Gorilla-gram! Maybe I’m getting immune. Maybe ageing is like dust which, according to Quentin Crisp, doesn’t get any thicker after the first four years.
Two aspects of ageing which people find distressing are the loss of sexual attractiveness and the fear of death. The first is particularly painful for women, I think. I was never beautiful or any more than averagely successful with men, but I was not prepared for the uncertainty, the loss of power and status I felt when those first faint lines began to appear around my eyes. I had not realized how much I relied on youth and femininity to get by in life, and how hard it is to flirt when confidence in one’s sexuality is fading. This is an unpleasant but a useful lesson to learn. In middle age you must cast around to find what else you have to offer, what else you are.
The fear of death is partially expressed in the sensation that time is flying by, faster and faster. It becomes more and more apparent as we get older that time is not a fixed and measured thing, but a function of our own state of mind. When I was a child, seven weeks of summer holiday stretched ahead, an endless bonanza of sunshine and freedom. Now seven weeks often pass unnoticed and unappreciated. If I were waiting for news of a missing child I daresay every second would seem like an hour, but when I am involved in something I really enjoy (writing this, for instance) I forget the time altogether and before I know it my husband is banging on the study door to remind me that it is time to go out and I have only five minutes to get ready. When I started, it was midday; now it’s dark outside and I have forgotten to close the curtains. Where did the hours go?
To balance out these negative effects, there is one massive positive one — the gaining of wisdom and a certain amount of balance. I might like to be seventeen again physically, but I would hate to return to that age psychologically; I was so afraid and self-important then. It seems to me that one’s picture of life is something like a jigsaw: when you are young the jigsaw is all jumbled, all the pieces are huge and unrelated, each equally important, equally terrible, but as you get older some of them begin to fall into place, although I doubt whether the picture is ever complete. And some of the pieces begin to be perceived as smaller, less important; it’s a continuing process of rearrangement. In other words, I suppose, we grow philosophical.
And the acquisition of wisdom, although to some extent a parallel process to ageing, does not proceed at the same rate in every person. I have sometimes been shamed into silence by a remark from a wise child, and recently had the odd experience of hearing my mother and father arguing over some trivial matter and having to resist the temptation to utter a long-suffering sigh, just like they used to, and say, ‘Oh, for goodness sake, you two!’
And it is at least comforting to know that something can be done about some of your unpleasant feelings about ageing. It is easier to set aside the fear of dying, for example, if you have a sense of having inhabited one of these frail human bodies before, feel that you have been old before, and young before, many times, and will be young again. Of course, there can be no proof of this — it’s just another feeling.
Anxieties about time passing can be mitigated by living as far as possible in the present moment, putting all your energy and interest into enjoying what you are doing now, into living well and richly — which means neither worrying nor indulging in those endless regrets about the past. The past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist, so it is just a waste to put your precious energy into guilt or anxiety. The only reality is right now, this instant. Of course, if you take this argument on to its logical conclusion you find that this instant is impossible to define because it is vanishingly small, in fact it is nonexistent. So does time exist at all? Do we? What is existence anyway? Does it matter?
Maybe by the time I reach my eightieth I will have the answers to some of these questions. On the other hand, maybe I will just Be.
First published in the August 1993 Buddhism Now.