On August tenth, the air was different. It carried the scent of fall.
Yet it’s supposed to be summer! It’s the second half of summer holidays, and everything is so perfectly lush and green and full. The sun is shining on the people at the festivals and the nights can feel hot. But I see: it’s a ruse, an illusion. So I concluded, by the time my walk was done, that August is sort of a false month. August is a middle-aged woman dying her hair.
Give me October instead, when everything is fading in earnest, and going out with a bang: fireworks everywhere.
Yes, I know I shouldn’t criticize any month. (And you’re also thinking that I shouldn’t alienate hair-dying readers either – yes, yes, but I’ll get to that too.) It seems ungrateful, I suppose.
And you, being rational, will surely argue, at the Tribunal of Fair Criticism, that August is the month of fullness, the month of fruition, the month of the Assumption and the birthday month for one-twelfth of the world.
You would be right, of course.
But for now, I smell the air, and it puts me in the mood of Qoheleth: “This also is futility and a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes)
I’m prepared to admit that my prejudice against August is irrational (if all prejudices are irrational then I suppose that’s redundant), but I take comfort in the fact that Chesterton’s wife was opposed to the moon. And besides, if you can have a favorite month, then why can’t you have a month that you dislike? That’s what I’d tell the judge at the Tribunal. It’s a somewhat persuasive argument? Or here’s another one: a person cannot control what or whom they like or dislike, so if I dislike the smell of autumn in the summer, then it’s just the way I’m wired. Is that any better? That one’s in keeping with the distinction which I’ve heard, to the effect that Christians are commanded to love – a matter of the will – but not commanded to like – a matter of who-knows-what. And of course this all reminds me of Chesterton’s quotation, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
But I’m actually quite open-minded about the issue, as you’ll see from the following: I, the Mostly-Anonymous Blogger who dislikes August, hereby declare, in the spirit of Tolerance for All Months, that in the highly improbable event of my extended relocation, planned or unplanned, to another part of the world where the length of summer exceeds 12.75 weeks, that I will generously and magnanimously suspend my dislike of August. I further declare that I am prepared to substitute, or to consider substituting, without excessive and unreasonable delay, my aforementioned dislike of August for dislike of whichever month looks lush but smells otherwise.
So you see, I leave room for negotiation.
Turning to other critical and pressing world issues, I’m not sure where I stand on hair-dying anymore. I used to be opposed, but exposure to wise women who do it has made me wonder whether they rightly do it to please their husbands, along the lines of Post 13. On the other hand, VeraciousOne, who is entirely elegant, doesn’t do it, saying “It’s about honesty.”
And have you heard? Gray is the new blond. The hairdresser showed me a little collection of hair swatches in shades of gray (now there’s a phrase that has gone up in flames – of hellfire, I suppose); she said the blue-gray one is particularly popular. Young people are dying their hair ‘granny gray’ just to show how very hip they are.
Hey, maybe they’ve read Chesterton, who wrote a story where the villain, “the wickedest man in England,” is described, in part, like this: “his hair, which was largely grey, was curled with the instinct of one who appreciated the gradual beauty of grey and silver.” (The Club of Queer Trades) I liked that.
But even if gray hair is in style, aging itself is very unfashionable these days. And I can understand why. Our culture idolizes the health and beauty of youth, and is not willing to sacrifice these things for the wisdom and experience of the aged. Being young is cool, and being old is cool to the extent that it imitates being young. The senior who participates in the marathon is cool; the senior who has a walker is not cool. That wealthy old golfer is given respect, but it’s not because of his age; it’s because he’s a good tipper and his Lexus is parked outside the country club. Take away his money and people won’t laugh at his jokes anymore. Contrast this with other cultures or even our own culture a few generations ago: respect for elders, whether they were healthy or wealthy or not, was a reality.
But above and beyond all this, being old nowadays can be really depressing. It’s considered an unthinkable burden for a family to live with elderly relatives, and therefore, care (if it can be called that) of the aged is left to institutions and their overworked staff. The poor go to the grim seniors’ residence, and the rich go to the place with the plush carpets and the chandelier in the dining room. Welcome to the rest of your life.
A few weeks ago, I was a captive audience for a television, and I was amazed to see that almost every second commercial was for a wearable device which, at the press of a button, would connect you to some call centre, aka Big Brother, who would alert the medical authorities in the event that you had a medical emergency. There were quite a few Orwellian companies that you could choose from. The job of the commercials is to make it look all normal and sensible, but the popularity of these devices is sad proof of the isolation that so many seniors experience, daily. They live unvisited for days and weeks and months at a time. It must be painful and demoralizing. This is where ‘independence’ has brought our society.
So it is no wonder that our pleasure-oriented culture would rather not think about aging, nor its even less-welcome cousin, Sister Death, as St. Francis of Assisi called it. A person might admit, grudgingly, that he is aging, but death is for other people, not for him. I’m too young for that; I’m too healthy for that; I’m too busy for that.
And as a result, we’ve come up with a few convenient lies to tell ourselves about aging. I’m thinking of those little phrases that somehow get started and then get circulated so often that they start seeming true, even though they’re stupid. My concern is that the more we accept these phrases, the stupider we get as a culture.
I’m thinking of: “You’re only as old as you feel,” or, “Age is just a number.”
Give me a break.
(Now I haven’t heard you saying it, so don’t take this personally. Instead, view it as the random rantings of a person who has the audacity to disparage August and triangles and round buildings.)
In the first place, you must notice that nobody who is young, let’s say 24 or under, says these things.
(I choose 24 because when you turn 25, you’ll probably notice that you are ‘a quarter of a century’ and it may occur to you that the birthdays are going to keep coming, and will bring you to – shudder – 30.)
Indeed, this phrase is invariably said by people past their prime, who believe that they are unique in their outlook and approach to life. Unlike those other people, who are old and inactive, they feel young. So this is the first problem with it: nearly EVERYONE feels young. Or to put it another way, nearly everyone FEELS young, on the inside.
Who feels old on the inside? Do you look at an 82-year-old woman and think, “Now there’s someone who feels old”? If you did, you’d be wrong. She doesn’t feel any different, inside, than she did when she was 24. Just ask her. I dare you. Go around asking everyone how old they feel, and I bet you won’t find any who feel much different than they did decades ago. We look out at the world with the same eyes we always did, and we think with the same brain. We acknowledge the decline in eyes and brain, but we feel largely unchanged in who we are on a deeper level.
That 82-year-old woman is just as surprised as you would be if you woke up one morning to find that you had aged 49 years while you were asleep. She’s caught off guard by the rapid and sudden decline in her abilities and appearance. She has laugh lines when she’s sad, and frown lines even when she’s happy. “My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain,” said W.H. Auden.
I like the lines of that nostalgic song:
Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me?
– “Those Were the Days” (songwriter Gene Raskin)
No, I think the people who feel old on the inside are the exception, not the rule. Those of us who feel like we were born middle-aged (or in the Middle Ages) are outliers. But even so, we felt 40 then, and we feel 40 now and will probably always feel 40.
Our chronological aging does not affect that deep interior part of us which is timeless, which is beyond time, which is eternal. We feel young because, not surprisingly, an eternal people never would get old.
So there’s an aspect of reality reflected in denying and defying aging, which is pretty much what these expressions encourage.
But instead of getting to a truthful place which can be reached with a consideration of a little bit of theology, our society scoffs at such ‘unreasonable’ notions and goes on to say things which are ridiculous, like “you’re only as old as you feel.”
Let’s be sensible: your age is not about how you feel. Your age is about math – counting, to be specific. You start on the date of your birth (or, like the Koreans used to, you acknowledge the time in the womb by starting a year earlier than the date of birth), and then you add the days that have elapsed since then. It’s kind of beautiful in its logic, isn’t it?
Let’s not be relativistic about those things which we should not be. Sure, if you want to call yourself an artist, go ahead, I won’t argue. (I remember when a fellow teenager said to me that if you don’t identify yourself as an artist, people will say, “Wow, you’re a good draw-er.”) And if you want to call yourself a writer, go ahead! (I know you’re just a blogger though.)
But there are limits to this game of make-believe, I hope.
Or are we such lovers of relativism that we would say that what is objectively true shall be subordinate to what we feel? My mom is a cat and my dad is a cat, and my birth certificate used to say I am a cat, but I’ve had it changed because lately I’ve been feeling like a dog.
My birth certificate says that I was born in 1901, but trust me, I really do feel very young. Contact Vital Statistics to change the year to 2001. You must play along with me because I make my own truth about myself. I feel young, and if you were paying attention, you would see that I dress like the young person I am. Or could it be that you failed to notice the strategically-placed holes in my jeans? And my hair: you noticed, I hope, that I am sporting the very latest shade of granny gray?
Ah, you say, settle down, it’s just an expression.
No, I won’t! I won’t settle down! I am determined to have my tantrum right here and right now and waaaaaaa! Who says I have to be mature? Who dares stop me if I want to be 2 years old? That’s how I feel! How dare you tell me, you intolerant counting person, that I am not 2?
I WANT to be 2.
So I am.
Welcome to my own personal world of make-believe. You have to play along. If you don’t, well, that just proves you’re a meanie.
And lest you think I exaggerate, I see references on the internet to a person’s ‘health age.’ With almost no effort, I found the following quotation:
Have you ever heard a phrase along the lines of “30 is the new 40”? Such statements are an excellent illustration of a simple fact – namely, that the details on your birth certificate don’t have to dictate your physical and mental state. Instead, it is your “health age” that can determine your overall health and energy level. Whatever ideas you may have of what it means to be 40, 50 or beyond, you don’t simply have to accept the limitations associated with age. By carefully adjusting your lifestyle and investing in the right anti-aging treatment, you may be able to regain control of your mind and body and continue to live your life as you choose.
Isn’t the expression “40 is the new 30”? (Ah, these unequal equalities are so confusing!) Anyway, here the writer discredits the “details” of your birth certificate. Yeah, all those pesky details! Those aren’t the facts. The FACT is that the DETAILS don’t have to matter or make one iota of difference. And look at the carrot at the end of the paragraph: “continue to live YOUR life as YOU choose.” Ah yes, good old independence!
Now of course they begin with some facts so obvious that they don’t need to be stated: an old person can be healthier than a young person. So far so good.
But you see where this is going.
This website provides the modern ‘scientific’ version of a crystal ball, one of many life-expectancy calculators. I recommend using one, because it’s wise to think about these things. The one on this website gave me the longest life-expectancy of all. Apparently, I am going to live until I am 105. And my ‘Health Age’ is 16.
This is not ‘good news.’ It is nonsense.
But how can a person argue with this? They made up the questions, and they made up the answer too. It’s a FACT. And isn’t that interesting that they want to speak in terms of a “simple fact” when there aren’t very many facts which are simpler than the fact of your date of birth, and hence, your real age? In lieu of this, they substitute a time-consuming questionnaire (not simple) in order to give me my ‘health age.’
Indeed, I cannot prove to them that I will not live until I am 105. How can I prove that they’re wrong? I can show that it is statistically extremely improbable, and I can show them that there were certain questions missing from their questionnaire, but once you step away from common sense starting-points, well, you can make the truth be whatever you want it to be. That’s the problem with almost all philosophy; it doesn’t begin with natural starting-points. Chesterton praised St. Thomas Aquinas because St. Thomas Aquinas, unparalleled genius that he was, began with what he could learn from his senses. What is more sensible than that? And, unparalleled genius that he was, he climbed very, very, high from that foundation.
But anyway, my answer to all the people at the Longevity Centres of America is to say that they cannot prove that I will live until I am 105, and they cannot sell me anything that will ‘enable me to regain control of my mind and body’ in any significant way (as if anyone really has very much control over these things in the first place).
Who knows how long they will live? Will you be that health-conscious person who dies at the age of 33, or that sickly person who outlives all her friends and dies at 93? Statistically speaking, my chance of a sudden death is greater than my chance of living until I am 105. And even if 99% of my body has a health age of 16, surely at least 1% of my body knows how to act its age. And perhaps that 1% will have a decisive vote and take me down.
So there is uncertainty, but these uncertainties exist in the context of some basic certainties. If you are 79, you are not young. If you are 69, you are not young. If you are 59, you are not young. If you are 49, you are not young. If you are 39, you are not young.
At 39, you are middle-aged. 39 is roughly the middle. The bible says that a man’s life is ‘three-score and ten’ which is 70, and despite all the talk of living longer, we can, in general, hope for a life about 80 years long. Even that is not guaranteed, in which case, you might be past the middle of your life at age 39.
And when you consider the fact that, in general, our vitality tapers off as we reach these later years, we shouldn’t get too excited about getting an extra 8 or 10 years on top of this. To put it another way, the extra years that you’d get, if you were to win the longevity lottery, are the ‘weaker’ ones, those discounted ones that are on sale at the dollar store. Remove the gift wrap and you’ll see some saggy years staring back at you: 84, 85, 86, 87. You won’t luck out and get an extra set of the 20s or 30s.
Now I’m not saying that those later years aren’t worth having; they are truly a gift, just like all the other days that God gives us, and if they are marked by sorrow or suffering, then we can gain great spiritual benefit from them. (Euthanasia’s greatest crime is that it steals from us our big chance for penance and atonement – being procrastinators, we’ll avoid such things until we have no choice but to face them.)
What I am saying is, let’s be realistic, and not delude ourselves, by our words or actions, into thinking that we have more time than we have. Our very lives are like August. It may look like an endless summer, and sound like one and even feel like one, but there’s a scent in the air, and it’s time to prepare.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted
– Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2