“It’s like arriving at a bus station at five minutes to midnight, in the middle of a bustling city, dressed only in your undies”. That’s my friend’s rather odd male-centric take on reaching seventy years of age. But let’s go with it – for now.
I’m not sure you arrive anywhere really, only in the recesses of your mind. “Five minutes to midnight” might signal the approaching twilight years, and the “middle of a bustling city” that sense of still being in the thick of things. “In undies”? Well, your guess is a good as mine. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for existential vulnerability. My friend is slightly unhinged and paranoid about his chronological time warp, so let’s be kind.
Whichever way you look at it, arriving at this milestone, with or without undies, invites contemplation. One’s mind rakes over the past, present and future in a tortured effort to elicit some meaningful insights into an event that appears to make little sense. I found myself scouring through Brainy Quotes and yawning at new age sophistry in search of something – anything – that might finally put words to my mysterious feelings. But instead of profundity, all that surfaced was the anodyne.
And nor was I assisted by the sociology 101 observation that 70 is a social construction, which is a bit like saying that flatulence is a cultural event – which in some quarters it is. The thing is, you have to live with being three scores and ten, don’t you? You can’t just wish it away or pretend it hasn’t happened. We all live in worlds that define who we are according to various social and cultural criteria, including age. Resist stereotypes all you like, but there’s no avoiding the prejudices and flawed assumptions that pervade your sense of who you are. They get woven into your psyche as assuredly as gin goes with tonic.
As for those age refuseniks who continue to mimic earlier iterations of their imagined selves, or who bravely defy all labels and stereotypes; well, good luck to you! You might not be able to wear those fabled jeans of yesteryear that rendered you a human dart, but nowadays there are comfy stretch jobs available at your local superstore.
All up, getting to 70 means being assailed by various competing narratives that confuse rather than enlighten. A sense-making option might be to turn to that diminutive 75-year-old spiritual guru, Eckhart Tolle, who jauntily advises us to shut up, be still and let the dark clouds pass through our consciousness like vapid ghosts. Easier said than done, right? And yet, sitting there and sucking in deep breaths really does work. Well, it does for me. I use this technique to expel unwanted thoughts – like, shit I’m old! – that only invite grief. But it’s hard to stop those rogue thoughts coursing through one’s mind like a freight train minus the driver. I sensed this in Daniel Klein’s book Travels with Epicurus – a philosophical primer for the aging bloke – in which he laments being “old” but dreads being “old old”.
So, what am I looking for in all this? Who knows. Perhaps some kind of ultimate explanation of what is? Good luck with that one. Or maybe I’m seeking comfort and reassurance, or a healthy dose of self-compassion and gratitude. But how about some good old self-loathing? After all, I’m a white privileged old(er) bloke living in the lap of superannuated luxury. Why get all soppy about turning 70? It feels like an indulgence when I think about people my age who are lonely, sad, poor and generally pissed off. Understandably so. A blackfella in Australia, for instance, is much less likely to make it to my age. Poverty and intergenerational trauma make sure of that. Lots of older women find themselves in poverty or facing homelessness, and many older folk live out their lives in aged ‘care’ facilities. Older people are regularly discriminated against, disregarded, and driven to the margins of community life. Ageism in all its various guises is alive and well – an ism often ignored and more than occasionally, laughed at.
So that puts paid to my new age delusions. That said, like Michael Ignatieff in Consolations, I do take solace from a couple of simple things. First, we’re all ageing, are we not? Second, my human ancestors have trodden the same path, billions of times over. Humanity has a lot in common in this respect. Does being 70 matter? Of course it does. But it’s how and why it matters. It’s led me to reflect on my relative privilege and the brevity, complexity and richness of life, its ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and the ridiculousness of craving, status and legacy. In some respects, life may have its difficult, brutish aspects – as it does for millions around the world – but it can also hold the opposite and everything in-between. Mark Manson in The subtle art of not giving a fuck says as much, albeit from a very US-centric, male-triumphalist perspective.
Being 70 is a kind of crude marker, a pause in a transitory journey. It’s tempting to offer up a premature personal eulogy or obituary, but I’m still on life’s epic journey to who knows where. Some people, as I understand it, hold their funerals before they actually die. I like that – but watch out: you might be disappointed. Which reminds me that it’s possible to hire professional mourners just to make sure the level of public grieving is right up there with the North Koreans. I’ve invited my partner to dress in black for several weeks after I actually cark it, to which she replied, “oh great, I look good in black!”
But if I’m to rage against anything as I get older, it’ll be the ailing state of planet Earth, and all the hubris, greed, recklessness, insensitivity and suffering that goes with it. For me, the saddest thought of all is that my stepson, his partner and two beautiful kids will have to face up to an unliveable hothouse Earth.
Now that sucks.