Tuesday, December 10, 2019

How we age (if we're lucky): Still managing to display a little green!

I've been reading Thomas Mann's 1954 short book The Black Swan, and at one point a tree is described as basically old and dying....but "still managing to display a little green".  It's a short book, a bit odd, and about various health-related issues.  I would not recommend it....but this phrase got my attention.

As time goes (flies!) by, and one ages, one may harbor the illusion, or delusion, that all's well with the world (and one's body and mind), but of course anyone with open eyes knows better.  We careen towards our end, more or less uncontrollably.  Those with faith that there is no end may be right, or may be living a comfortable self-deception (you have to decide, for yourself, which you think is true).

The point of Mann's book, and this post, however is that as the years crank unstoppably by, our various assets wither and become liabilities.  In Mann's book, the allure of the young and sexy is envied by an aging woman who wishes to recapture it (in her imagination at least.....or by being pursued by a man).  In the real world, the leaves fall off our various branches, ineluctably, one by one (if we're lucky).  We gradually become a branchless skeleton of our former fully-leafed state.

Some may live in the belief--or illusion, or hope--that we'll reappear in full leaf after all our earthly leaves have fallen, and we've gone 'there'.  Others may feel, regardless of that, that here is where we are for the moment, and we want to see ourselves in full leaf.

The lessons of real knowledge, however seem otherwise.  At least in terms of material reality, every beast that troddeth upon the earth, including every human and every human ancestor, has passed into the beyond.  Some have trod for a longer time than others, but all must, eventually, go.

This is the harsh, if not cruel, lesson that the age of science has made as clear as evidence can do.  This leads many to deny what is in the mirror and, as in the Black Swan perhaps, live in illusion until some final, fatal part fails....and the last leaves fall.

Naturally, until that happens (and, oddly, we'll never actually know it because there won't be any 'we' to know it), because we are endowed with an imagination that enables us to walk the forest looking for our prey, we can also imagine that an endless immaterial field awaits us.  Maybe it does--how can  anyone actually know?  But maybe it doesn't; maybe this is our hopeful illusion or delusion.

If that is the case, it is understandable that we want to stay at least a little bit in leaf, always showing at least some green.


Holly Dunsworth said...

This is some good green.

And a timely overlap with my reflections as the semester ends on how aging has been the most, best influence on my effectiveness and happiness as a professor. The shedding, withering, and dying of things can make space for that green bit that's left to thrive a while longer.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, good thoughts!