Friday, December 23, 2011

30: It's the Magic Number

On Sunday at the end of this week I turn 43 years old and I’ve been thinking not so much about turning 43 as about the difference between turning 40 and turning 30. Our culture makes a big deal about turning 40. And it is significant. At 40 one is typically half way through a life. Taking stock of how far one has come at such a point is not only natural it seems inevitable. Failure to reach some goals by this age may result in the proverbial mid-life crisis. Though, in ancient Rome, 40 was considered the prime of life, the time to enjoy the fruits of all you had accomplished, if, indeed, you had accomplished something. But, looking back, I realize that 30 is really the age of deepest significance. 30 is when you step into time, you feel it like a friction. If we fall into life, we fall into a vacuum, drifting without effort until we hit 30, when we hit the atmosphere and start feeling the burn of entry. Many famous literary figures are 30: Hamlet, K in Kafka’s The Trial, Hugh in Under the Volcano, Roquentin in Nausea, the main character in Fight Club.

30 is when you become more than simply aware of mortality, rather it infects your soul. You don’t only realize a clock is ticking, you can now hear it. Because of it, whether you believe in a life beyond this one or not, you sense now that there will be a reckoning of some sort. If anything produces the disillusionment that comes with shedding youth, it is this thing that seizes you. And that may be another way of understanding the difference. In one’s 20’s, there is the knowledge of mortality, but once 30 comes, somehow it knows you. Here is Hugh, the nephew of the main character in Under the Volcano, reflecting on his life in his 30th year.

Twenty-nine clouds. At twenty-nine a man was in his thirtieth year. And he was twenty-nine. And now at last, though the feeling had perhaps been growing on him all morning, he knew what it felt like, the intolerable impact of this knowledge that might have come at twenty-two, but had not, that ought at least to have come at twenty-five, but still somehow had not, this knowledge, hitherto associated only with people tottering on the brink of the grave and A.E. Houseman, that one could not be young forever—that indeed, in the twinkling of an eye, one was not young any longer. For in less than four years, passing so swiftly to-day’s cigarette seemed smoked yesterday, one would be thirty-three, in seven more, forty, in forty-seven, eighty. Sixty-seven years seemed a comfortingly long time but then he would be a hundred. I am not a prodigy any longer. I have no excuse any longer to behave in this irresponsible fashion. I am not such a dashing fellow after all. I am not young. On the other hand: I am a prodigy. I am young. I am a dashing fellow. Am I not? You are a liar, said the trees tossing in the garden. You are a traitor, rattled the plantain leaves. And a coward too, put in some fitful sounds of music that might have meant that in the zócalo the fair was beginning. And they are losing the Battle of the Ebro. Because of you, said the wind. A traitor even to your journalist friends you like to run down and who are really courageous men, admit it—Ahhh! Hugh, as if to rid himself of these thoughts, turned the radio dial back and forth, trying to get San Antonio (“I am none of these things really.” “I have done nothing to warrant all this guilt.” “I am no worse than anybody else. . .”); but it was no good. All his resolutions of this morning were to no avail. It seemed useless to struggle any further with these thoughts, better to let them have their way. . .
. . . No: I am much afraid there is little enough in your past, which will come to your aid against the future. Not even the seagull? Said Hugh. . .

Notice the guilt Hugh feels, his efforts at self-justification. Suddenly, in the wake of time’s presence, in the certain knowledge of mortality that grips him, there is a need to justify the past, the way he has been living, but nothing there will save him from the future and its inevitable conclusion. Up until now, there has been no such need, life was his own, there was no time, only his choices and actions. There was no concern for consequence. “I have done nothing to warrant all this guilt” he says. “I am no worse than anybody else.” It is so brilliant, that youthful, insouciant gesture that says, “I’d rather regret what I did than what I didn’t do.” Of course, however, though I too would maintain this same stance even today, the guilt is inescapable, because from my very best intentions have sprung some deplorable consequences and fight it how we may, they partly define us.

Hugh’s efforts at self-justification could have been lifted from Kafka’s The Trial. K, on his 30th birthday, wakes to find he has been arrested. He spends the entire year trying to prove his innocence to a court whose higher judges he never meets and he is finally executed. What did he do? What is he guilty of? One never knows. But it is the weight of actions taking place in time. He, like all of us, is inescapably guilty. With the freedom of youthful potential stolen, he is now someone who is known, fixed in the continuum of the clock. Near the end of the novel, at the core of it he is confronted by a priest in a deserted church:

“You are Joseph K.,” said the priest, lifting one hand from the balustrade in a vague gesture. “Yes,” said K, thinking how frankly he used to give his name and what a burden it had recently become to him; nowadays people he had never seen before seemed to know his name. How pleasant it was to have to introduce oneself before being recognized!

Who doesn’t know the desire to be somewhere you aren’t recognized, the pleasure of this chance to transform yourself into someone else entirely, to have the possibility again to get right the correspondence between who you are and who you appear to be? It’s the desire to be someplace where there are no expectations.

by Charles O. Hartman

I love the moment at the ticket window—he says—
when you are to say the name of your destination, and realize
that you could say anything, the man at the counter
will believe you, the woman at the counter
would never say No, that isn’t where you're going,
you could buy a ticket for one place and go to another,
less far along the same line. Suddenly you would find yourself
—he says—in a locality you’ve never seen before,
where no one has ever seen you and you could say your name
was anything you like, nobody would say No,
that isn’t you, this is who you are. It thrills me every time.

But you can’t escape your own expectations. So we are burdened by history, the weight of all the accumulated past in the moment of recognition. Before that moment, before that point in time, the future is infinitely open and there is the chance that one could become anything or anyone. But then the moment comes and doors start closing, the field of vision narrows until it’s just you, standing there inescapably carrying your history. Camus wrote too about this very dilemma in the Myth of Sisyphus:

Likewise and during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it. We live on the future: “tomorrow,” “later on,” “when you have made your way,” “you will understand when you are old enough.” Such irrelevancies are wonderful, for, after all, it’s a matter of dying. Yet a day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.

Once the bell tolls at the age of 30, there seems to be only 2 ways out: existential freedom, that is accepting that everything is already lost in your inevitable death and there is therefore no reason not to see all choices available to you, or the transcendent response found in everything from Christianity to Whitman’s Song of Myself where Whitman says of all the different events of life both good and bad:

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(From Section 4)

Jesus began his ministry at 30 and indeed, by Biblical reckoning, a person is not an adult until they reach 30. It is the time at which, as Roquentin in Nausea says, “Nothing has changed, but everything is different.” If there is an iconic image that captures this moment it is Hamlet staring into the skull of Yorick. A short time after, Hamlet asserts his final philosophy regarding the imminence of death. Horatio warns Hamlet to call off the dual with Laertes if he suspects any foul play but Hamlet says,

Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’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. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.

“The readiness is all.” Here is one point that encompasses both religious and secular insight, namely, that one cannot make wise decisions without taking into account the fact of one’s approaching demise. David in the Psalms said,

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee. (Psalms 39:4 – 7)

Here David dispenses with worldly accomplishment, recognizing it for the temporary show it is. What is the main issue? Something that transcends the time-bound: God. David comes to this realization that he must hope in God in light of knowing that he is mortal and going to die. Similarly, Pascal in his Pansées said of death “that the only possible way of acting with sense and judgment is to decide our course in the light of this point, which ought to be our ultimate objective.”

At 30, perhaps the choices or lack of choices from adolescence finally yield their return and in that reckoning, the arc of life through time is first known, we can measure its metaphysical weight in the consequences. Then the realization seizes us that our life is not just the result of our choices, but of consequences beyond our control, that consequence breeds consequence and does not end. Against those forces, those beyond control, all philosophies and theologies attempt to take arms. True identity comes into reality in this crucible, the definite shape of who we are is forged in this fire. Seize the day, amor fati, thy will be done – these are the bricks and mortar of our temple to salvation, the bulwark built to shore up our minds against the onslaught of time. At 30, whether secular or religious, we enter that temple and know ourselves as mortal.

No comments:

Post a Comment