About halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, character Mike Campbell - who had earlier been described as someone very likely to become rich - has suffered a serious financial setback. He is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” comes Mike’s famous answer, “gradually, then suddenly.”
Hemingway’s words have gone on to be used to describe everything from the rise of the internet to the constant churn of the global economy. The phrase has also been used to describe myriad failures, personal and professional. It is usually pretty apt.
Hemingway realized something fundamental about human nature (he did that a lot). He saw that we often look past the things that are happening and focus our attention on either what used to be true or what we hope will one day be true. Reality, however, has a way of butting in, and bringing your attention to the present.
And that happens gradually, then suddenly.
Last week I had one of those days.
It started early on. I went to the bathroom. The way most of us do early in the morning. The way I have done every day since before I can remember. I get up, I go to the bathroom, I pee. No big deal. A daily thing. So why did this one stand out?
Because after I peed - and I was certain I was done peeing - I stored all the relevant equipment and flushed, only to realize that I was, in fact, not as done peeing as I thought I was. And as I changed out of my now soiled clothes I remember having the thought that not being able to trust my prostate felt like a very very old thing. So I did what I think most of us would do in the face of that realization.
I completely ignored it.
Later that day, Alex and Theo came over to visit. We were talking about the fact that Theo was getting older, and wanted to be able to see more than the world from someone’s lap. I told Alex and Barb that I had seen a baby jumper that I thought would be perfect for him. I went upstairs to grab my laptop to show them what I had found. I opened the laptop to verify that I had the exersaucer saved and made my way downstairs.
Now I confess that walking downstairs with an open laptop and being distracted is not a best practice. It is, however, something I have done on more than one occasion. So I made my way downstairs, holding the laptop in front of me.
I'm sure you can imagine what happened next. My foot missed one step, then another, and I fell down the last two steps. I banged a knee and an elbow, lost the laptop, and ended up sprawled out on the floor in front of my wife, my oldest kid, and my grandchild.
In the span of a single day, I fell down some stairs and I peed myself a little. And lingering thoughts that might have existed that I am not really ‘that’ old were completely dissipated.
It all happened gradually, then suddenly.
In the study of aging, there is a concept known as “subjective age.” Our objective age is how old we are. Our subjective age is how old we feel.
When we are young, as a general rule our objective and subjective ages are basically the same. Ask a 20 year old how old they feel, and most will say something close to 20. This remains true through our mid to late 30s. By the time we reach 40, however, our objective and subjective ages start to diverge. On average, people over 40 say that they feel younger than their age. Substantially younger. In fact, people over 40 report feeling some 20% younger than their objective age. Interestingly, this remains the case for the next 40 years or so. There is another dividing line at 80. If we reach 80, then subjective age catches up with us. People over 80, in fact, have the tightest gap between subjective and objective age. They know how old they are.
I think that when we reach 80 we are done lying to ourselves. Our bodies show us that time has passed. There is no more space for bullshit. Things are what they are. You can choose to accept reality or not.
Either way, reality is not dependent on your choice.
I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine (who was 82 at the time) and he told me that getting old was like slowly turning invisible. As you age, the world notices you less and less. It values you less and less. It listens to you less and less. People don’t flirt with you anymore. Your opinions don’t really count anymore. When people pay attention it’s because they feel like they have to, he said.
Mostly, he sighed, it’s like the world just stops wanting you.
The person I was talking to has lived an extraordinary life. Done things that I have only read about. And I mean that literally. One of the more famous characters in Southern literature was based in part on his life. And here he was, talking about disappearing.
That conversation is one of those that has always stuck with me. And, for the record, I was there because I wanted to be you old coot. Not because I felt like I had to be.
Somewhere between the pee and the fall came the realization that I must be prematurely 80 because there is no gap between my subjective and objective ages.
I am 50 years old. And I feel 50. In every imaginable way.
I wake up tired, even when I sleep well.
I have a growing inability to tolerate bullshit, although I try to be polite.
Having a 7 year old is hard. I love him. He is amazing. And parenting a 7 year old genius with autism when I am 50 isn’t easy.
Having 5 kids is a lot.
I have to watch what I eat. Not because I want to. But because I want to be around longer.
I worry about what will happen when I die. A lot. Like a LOT a lot.
I take a pharmacy worth of pills just to be the person I used to just be.
I can’t trust my body to do the things I used to take for granted. Like say knowing when I am done peeing.
My hair is finally turning gray. I do still have it though, and that’s nice.
Did I mention I was tired?
In the last few month I have had one good friend diagnosed with a brain tumor. Another good friend had a heart attack. My best friend has an ongoing heart condition that could kill him at any time.
Life feels precarious. And that happened for me gradually, then suddenly.
I wish I could segue to some platitude about how we should all value every moment like it's our last, but I know that advice is unreasonable. It’s hard to live like today might be your last when you have a job and a mortgage. We have to find a balance between knowing the future isn’t guaranteed and the hope that the future might be better. I haven’t figured out that balance. I will keep trying.
Mostly, I will just try to be comfortable with who and what I am.
I will fall down stairs sometimes. I may even pee a little.
And, I will get up.
And keep trying.
No matter what.
I am grateful to be growing older with you! <3
Aging ain’t easy! Most days I don’t think about it. Then there are days when it scares the hell out of me. I’m 50 and I have two children who are 10 and 7 so I worry about being alive when they are in their 20’s and 30’s. Most of the time I watch what I eat and I take my medication and supplements. I’m doing what I can to extend my life so I can be there when they need me. Aging gives you this great superpower to see bullshit. It’s a six sense and I see bullshit everywhere. It use to make me upset because bullshit waste so much time and I have none. Now, it bothers me less because I understand that the world is jammed packed with bullshit because no one knows what they are doing and very few of us are consciously controlling our minds. Last week I had a discovery that things don’t have to be perfect in order for me to be happy and not to be afraid to enjoy the joyful moments of my life. Brené Brown helped me with this. Each day is a happy day for me, but some days I have to work harder than others to maintain the happiness and I rather do the work to be happy then dive into the realm of negativity. Remember, feelings determine your thoughts and your thoughts affect your behavior “Brené Brown”.