A while back Rollo May wrote a book called, as I remember, The Age of Anxiety. In my mind, this is a sort of 60’s book, like One Dimensional Man, that cast a critical eye on the ills of our society. His argument, in brief, was that as rules and conventions, governing, say, sex roles became ambiguous, and as religion lost its hold in our secular age, more and more responsibility would be put on the individual to determine his or her course in life or the contours of his or her “life-style.” And this increased sense of responsibility, along with having lost the automatic pilot of rules, regulations, and traditional values, would lead almost necessarily to an increase in anxiety. Or, yes, we are now freer than we once were, but we are also more lost.
I think this line of reasoning might be applied not just to our age but to “age” or aging period. In retirement, at 72 years of age, I find that most of the rules that once governed and determined my daily routine are gone. And they have gone, not because something as abstract as ‘the age’ has taken them away, but because the very material processes by which I might support and maintain those rules and routines have dramatically altered. I can no longer run without endangering my ankles, and I can no longer jump because my knees swell up. Sure, I could do these things I suppose, but then I would really pay for it, by becoming immobilized. There are quite a few things—some of them very important—that I can no longer do, not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t.
It’s the strangest thing to watch young men playing basketball. They run for hours flowing effortlessly, forwards and backwards and sideways, up and down the court. And I remember and can feel somewhere in my bones that once upon a time I could do that and I enjoyed doing it too, but I no longer can. It hurts to watch. I don’t know if it is worth it. I didn’t understand before when people would say, “That was another lifetime.” Now I do. I look at those young men and I think of things I did when I was twenty and I can’t imagine how I ever did them. That must have been another lifetime.
It isn’t just that “the age” is riven with anxiety—I think it is—but that anxiety is, as they say, baked into the process of aging. It’s a sort of double whammy. Living in an age of ambiguity at an age that itself is ambiguous. I mean old people don’t even know what to call ourselves. I happened to mention that, according to an organization for seniors, people over 70 years old are “elderly.” And one of the people sitting nearby said she was over 70 and be damned if she was “elderly.” People over 80, she said, were elderly. And identity concerns like this are small potatoes when contrasted with the really important ones like what are the rules and traditions for determining how long one should live (when in the past, not that long ago, one would have been dead already). Or what the hell should I indicate in my DNR’s?