Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Curse of Aging Part III - Chronocompression

There is something about an early morning bike ride over our little mountain and into our village by the sea that awakens the words that you have been searching for. When the words start falling into place in your head, it is a good distraction from the pain that is building in my knees.

Chronocompression (my coined word) is not a phenomenon of quantum physics but one of psychology and brain physiology. It is that process in which time seems to move faster as you age. It is well recognized and just my personal perspective.

If you have ever held a slinky over the edge of something tall, say, from the top of a building (and I have but I can't remember why) you will see as it coils downward and stretches out that the end closes to you has the widest spaces between the coils. The reason is simple. The slinky supports the weight of itself which is below that particular point. So at the very top, where you are holding it, the entire weight of the slinky is pulling down making the spring stretch out. Towards the bottom, the coils are compressed together because there is virtually little mass beneath that point which it must support.

The experience of time to the traveler within it is so skewed. This too is part of the curse of aging. Wouldn't it be nice if it were the opposite. The longer we lived the slower time went, so we could hang on to life with our finger nails much longer than it seemed we could.

Looking back into my personal life is like looking down a long funnel. The further back you go, the less you see. The parts you do see at the distal end, seem like fuzzy black and white photos surrounded by a gray fog.

I have a few snapshots in my memory of my very early childhood. But the first landmark, which I remember with more vigor, is age six. That year, to my surprise and disappointment, two of my friends started school and due to my birthday being in July, I did not. We didn't have kindergarten or preschool so it was nothing straight to first grade.

That was a very hard year because then I was the only kid on my street who was not in school. That year lasted much longer than the entire decade between the new millennium (remember Y-2-K?) and 2010. It seemed like a endless time of me hanging out with my mom an a bunch of other moms going to matinée movies and watching Rock Hudson and Doris Day kissing. Then we would go bowling. I hated it and it was for an eternity.

The six years of elementary school seemed a bit longer than that one preschool year, but not by much.

The first time I really noticed chronocompressing was when I was ending my Sophomore year in high school. Time seemed to stretch into an eternity as I looked into the past . . . up until that point. It was around June 6th and I was at my high school on a Saturday morning watching graduation. While I had siblings who had already graduated high school, this was the first time my crowd of friends started to see the exodus.

I remember that morning as if I were an Autistic Savant. It was partly cloudy. I could smell freshly cut hay from the fields across the road. It was warm, maybe eighty and humid. I stood talking to my, two years older than me, friend, Terry Taylor. He had his cap and gown on waiting to march inside. It dawned on me, that for the first time, his school years were over. I felt a deep grief, but not for me, for him.

The thing that really threw me off was that, almost like a morphing special effect, I slowly felt myself changing into that same cap and gown. It was two years later, I was standing in the very same spot as Terry and I was thinking (and I remember this as clear as yesterday) "Where the hell did the last two years go?" I felt a deep grief and this time it was for myself.

The decade of my 20s continued to gain momentum but there was a reprieve. When there were no landmarks it is hard to notice the passage of time. For example, four years in college were stagnant. I had virtually the same friends from my freshmen year up until graduation. But even with that distraction, those four years still passed much quicker than that infamous preschool year.

The next four years of graduate school had the same reprieve but shorter still.

Once you get married and start having children, things begin to change for you rapidly. You suddenly have a plethora of markers.

When I'm out on the ferry it is hard to know how fast you are moving. The islands in all directions barely move. But when you pass some kind of marker, a bed of kelp floating on the surface, a lone kayaker, a harbor seal laying in the water on his back watching . . . then you get the feel for speed. In the same way, when your kids come into the world, there are constant string of markers like pearls on a chain. First steps, first teeth, first words, potty training, soccer, dating, driving, graduating, marriage, grand children.

I have a friend who is my age who never married and lives alone. He has been in the same town, same job and same house for more than 30 years. We've talked about this. He does not have the same constant marker of time. His comes in quantum leaps. He doesn't notice anything until, a relative dies or something like that. The he is shocked to find out that aunt so and so was 88.

So, I think I've made my point with this issue. So the question is what is the curse about this? Of course each step, and the steps get shorter and shorter, leads to the grave. But their is yet another curse. That is of perpetual loss.

Andy Runey might be one person who sees the dark side far more than me. I heard it best expressed by him. He did a brief, 60 Minutes, commentary on aging. He expressed this continuous process of losing well. Basically, to no one's surprise, he said that aging sucks. I think he had just turned 80. He said it sucked because, up until that point, he had lost his parents, three siblings, his dear wife, more than ten close friends and, if I remember right, a child or two. The grieving was accumulative, like the barnacles on the hull of a ship. It drags you down.

The past ten years have had the most of these crummy crustaceans. It has to do with loosing my father, then watching each of my five children leave home. I'm sitting across the table right now from my last one, who is moving out in about 40 days . . . but who is counting. The wounds never have time to heal.

So to end this thought without being too much of a downer, I am asked, by the Polyannas in my life, what about all the gains?

Of course you can't loose something that you didn't gain. I certainly remember the birth of each of my children and those were extremely good points and things that you anticipate and long to come quickly (even giving away days just so the birth will come sooner). But most of the other gains were insidious. Did I notice when I gained my father?

I didn't even notice when I gained my wife. I mean, I remember well the first time I saw her. I was seated on bus and she got on in front of the main terminal of JFK. I noticed right away that she had the shortest hair I had ever seen on a women and she had a real, out-doorsy, blue backpack on. I had no clue at that moment that she would radically change my life for the next 30 years. Our relationship grew relatively slow over the subsequent months . . . although we were walking down the aisle in only 13 months from the time I first spotted her.

Then when it comes to friends, when you first meet them, you never realize that they will become your best friend for a season, until they move away again, or they die.

So with trepidation I think about the future. I know from this point forward, the circles of the spring will be wound tighter and tighter, the seasons passing faster and faster, the losses coming quicker and quicker until the end of our days here on earth.

Of course the future will bring many good things too. Marriages of my children, although that feels too much like a loss to the selfish part of me, especially if their spouse takes them far away. There will be grand children and many good times to be had.

I am somewhat envious of the narcissistic brand of Christianity that I first learned. I was taught that the entire universe rotated around me and my relationship with Jesus. The guy that led me to the Lord told me that if I became a Christian that I would never be sad again. That God would spare me from harm and that me, in my young, healthy body, would be raptured straight to glory in the near (back then) future.

But, the fall is real, and to deny it's sorrows, to me, is to deny a part of reality. I think we must embrace its pain in order to embrace the glory of the new world . . . some day.


Johan said...

Very good, well thought out piece, as always. I appreciate it.
It's something I notice too. Very noticeable when it's time for exams at high school, and there're columns and pieces in the paper about the exams. And I think: wait, didn't they just have exams? When I was at high school, a year was very, very long. Now it seems the last exams are just a few weeks ago.
Same with vacations. Some of my friends are teachers, and so I know when the kids are free from school. Here in the Netherlands, basically one week every 1,5-2 months. And then I think back, and remember from my time at school, that the time between the vacations seemed very long, you really had to wait. Even the weeks were longer: you had to wait till weekend for forever (and then I could get a new stack of books from the library). Now the weeks fly past.
I have to think of G.K. Chesterton (I think you would appreciate him too, he also has a honest look at life). He remarks on this, that a young child can go of a slide again and again without it boring him. The same way God can make the sun go up again and again, just for the joy of making the sun rise. But we are soon bored. As Chesterton says: "We have grown old, and our father is younger than we are."
There is this 'timeless' sensation where on the one hand every moment seems an eternity, and on the other hand, time seems passing by unnoticed. I experience this most often when I do something that is my passion, that comes from my heart, e.g. when writing, or talking with friends about life, or when in nature. I think this experience, which is a sort of ex-tasis, out of body (which here would mean out of consciousness of time), is a sort of taster for the kind of life in the kingdom: eternity (which will seem like an instant, and at the same time will never end) because then we will never be bored. Peter Kreeft writes about this in 'Everything you always wanted to know about heaven' (very good book).
So I try to be conscious of this, and make conscious decisions to live from my passions, to make choices that are in accordance to my deepest beliefs, and to really LIVE.
Knowing that due to the curse this will ultimately fail, and I will only experience eterinity for real in eternity.


MJ said...

Well said. I've only read quotes from Chesterton but have never read any of his books thus far. Hope to do so.

Johan said...

I can really recommend Orthodoxy. I particularly like his chapter on 'the ethics of elfland'.
His 'The everlasting man' is very good too (it's one of the books that C.S. Lewis claimed prepared him for accepting Christ).