Can one truly wander in Life, or is there always a direction -a destination that might only become apparent -or rationalized- in retrospect? In other words, is Life a journey of discovering yourself, or merely ageing? It’s an important question to ask in retirement, don’t you think… Or, rather, is it a dangerous one? A question whose honest answer can only be disappointing: not whether one is satisfied with how it all turned out, nor even whether, if it could be lived again, the same choices would be made; the question, really, is after all the intervening years, do any of us actually know who we are? Can any of us say with certainty that we are the person we envisaged we would become in those long sunny days of youth? Did we come of age? Did we truly find ourselves? Are we, in fact, the same person, yet wearing different clothes?
I’ve always had a goal, I think, although it varied as I matured because there often seemed to be a different me who was sitting at the controls. Like a matryoshka doll, I never knew at which layer to stop; I never knew which layer was really mine. But that’s the thing about Life, the mystery of Age: there is no consistent me. I am the clothes…
I used to feel guilty that I kept changing -one day, a sweater, the next, a tee shirt, as it were; the only thing consistent was my name -and, I suppose, my family, although they, too, have mutated over the years. So, do we ever come of age, or merely live long enough to give up and decide we’re there?
It’s a question that has intrigued me -whenever I’ve stopped long enough to consider it- throughout my life. I’m not alone in this, I guess, and yet I felt alone. Confused that nobody else seemed troubled by their ever-changing clothes. Curious that when I look at a picture of me as a child, I feel I’m looking at someone I barely recognize; there is a link, but only hair-thin. He is ‘me’ I suppose, but more a character in a book I think I’ve read than flesh-and-blood.
Fortunately curiosity, however existential, is sometimes rewarded. I (whoever that is) came across an essay by the writer and historian Cody Delistraty in the ever-reliable Aeon a while ago: https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-coming-of-age-narrative-is-a-conformist-lie
As he says, ‘the search for the ‘self’ is dubious because it assumes that there is an enduring ‘self’ that lurks within and that can somehow be found. Whereas, in fact, the only ‘self’ we can be sure of is one that changes every second, our decisions and circumstances taking us in an infinite number of directions, moment by moment.’ That was freeing, so I read on.
‘The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives… As the 19th-century philosopher William James put it: ‘Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him and carry an image of him in their mind.’ In other words, I suppose, ‘An individual does not have a given ‘self’ but is instead comprised of many ‘selves’ that shift slowly and in relation to social circumstance.’
One nice thing about ageing is finding yourself the inadvertent receptacle for the hopes and fears of younger, less experienced travellers through their own years. Another is noticing the detours -the routes that seemed highways at the time, but failed to arrive where you expected. And yet, maybe just being old -merely achieving age- grants you a perspective that is hidden from others.
The two women sitting in front of me on an almost empty bus seemed to think so at any rate. They started off with idle chatter -the kind you’d expect on a bus- but then they started whispering, and I began to pay attention. Nothing sharpens the ears like a mumble.
“My poor Alphie,” the lady in the red coat and lynx-grey hair started, leaning her head over to her seat-mate who seemed a study in opposites with her short hair dyed purple -no doubt to match her heavy blue coat.
Purple leaned even closer, sensing some fruitful gossip, I think.
“He started out so well…’ Red continued, sotto voce.
“Didn’t he study for the ministry?” Purple interrupted, just to be sure she was thinking of the same Alphie.
“That’s the one,” Red mumbled, nodding her head. “Top student in high school, you probably remember.” She quickly eyed her friend to make sure. “Never tempted like the others, so everybody guessed he’d head for religion when he finished like he’d always intended”
It was Purple’s turn to nod her head and she duly complied. “Didn’t he volunteer to be a counsellor at the Church camp that summer?”
I thought I saw Red sighing, although the bus went over some gravel at that point, so I couldn’t be sure. “Yes, but I think that’s where the problem started, you know…”
Purple made eye contact briefly, then looked out of the window, politely averting her eyes.
“He’d never so much as looked at a girl before that,” Red added. The conversation stopped for a few moments, as if she’d said enough -too much maybe.
Finally, Purple, almost bursting with curiosity, could stand it no longer. “So… I mean, did he…?”
“Oh no -nothing like that!” Red was quick to whisper.
Obviously disappointed, Purple’s head distanced itself a centimetre or two from her friend.
Red noticed, and likely sensed she’d lose her audience if she wasn’t careful. “No, but after that summer, he decided not to go into the ministry.”
Purple risked a glance. “What happened, Grace?” she allowed her voice to raise to the level of audibility briefly.
“Well, he dithered around and then switched faculties at the U…” Now, it was becoming clear that Grace was dangling some suspense in front of Purple.
“So… So what’s he taking now?”
Grace turned her head enough for me to see that she was frowning. “Well, that’s the problem, Jessie…” She suddenly looked out of the window and reached for the cord. “I’m almost at my stop,” she added and began to collect her things.
“Grace!” Jessie chided. “You’ve got to tell me before you get off, eh?”
Grace began to stand as the bus slowed for her stop. “He decided to take a year off and travel with his partner…”
Although she didn’t turn her head completely, I could see a big smile on Jessie’s face. “Aww, that’s great! I think kids should take some time before they decide where they’re going in life, don’t you?”
Grace was standing at this point and about to head for the door.
“Do you think Alphie will marry his partner? Jessie continued, before her friend disappeared.
Grace shrugged theatrically and turned to go. “Bob isn’t the marrying kind, I don’t think…” she said, but it was hard to tell if she was being sarcastic as she hurried to the door.
Jessie settled back in her seat with what seemed like a disappointed sigh. “Kids!” I thought I heard her whisper to herself.
Me? I could only remember the way the poet Robbie Burns had so memorably put it: The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley, and pulled the cord for my stop.