Why do old people so often lament the state of the world today and speak nostalgically of the world as it used to be? Is the world really so different today than it was in the historical nano-second-ago that was our childhood and youth?
I think not.
We idealize the past and demonize the present, first, because we know how the past turned out, and we survived—an outcome we struggle to believe in with regards to the future. Second, we know so much more than we did. Had I known, growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, of all the atrocities and crimes and injustice that had preceded my birth and were continuing through my early years, my optimism would have suffered. Third, we live today in a media environment that depends, economically, on a constant stirring of the pot. Chicken Little provokes clicks, views, ratings, and success. To the extent that we construct our view of the world through the media, we almost never hear good news.
In the essays attached to Christa Wolf’s remarkable 1983 novel, Cassandra, she includes diary entries from 1981 in which she and her friends debate how to live in a world that they expect to self-destruct in a nuclear war within three or four years. What’s the point, under such circumstances, of doing anything? Why go to work? Why read a book, or write one? Their discussions remind me of similar discussions in those years. I was bemused by the panicked excavation of backyard bomb shelters, fully equipped with bottled water and canned food. What folly! If there were a nuclear holocaust, the last outcome one could possibly wish for would be to survive the initial blast and have to live in the irradiated hell-scape that would result. Others around me were terrified at the mere thought of nuclear extinction. To me, there seemed little difference: whether one dies in his twenties, or in his eighties, one dies. The cause of death is incidental. As for the destruction of humanity as a whole, there would be much to lament in our extinction; but there would be much, too, of which one could only say, “Good riddance!” However we will die, the important question remains: How shall we live, in the meantime?
All such youthful ponderings of death, individual or collective, cease to be speculative in old age. “If it be now,” says Hamlet,
’tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.
In old age we know that, whenever it comes, it won’t be long. It could be any moment, or it could be thirty years from now. The old question in the face of destruction—”Why do anything? What’s the point?”—seems now almost quaint. Why not?? What else should one do with life but to live it? In old age I see more clearly than ever before that life itself is the point. The morning cup of coffee, with its delicious odour and comforting warmth, is the point. It doesn’t need to mean anything; it simply is. And so am I. As long as I am here, I intend to savour every sip. And that’s not consolation—it’s pretty damn good!