Think back to when you were a child. Pick a time when you were aware of the world and starting to notice things around you, perhaps 10 or 11 years old. Most of us had aging individuals in our lives: grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers. We may have loved them dearly but they were different to us: they were old. As we grew up, inevitably some of those people died. We were sad that they had gone but comforted by the knowledge that they had enjoyed a good, long, interesting life. Our unspoken assumption was that they felt old, were ready to go, were prepared for the end.
It is only when we ourselves mature that we finally discover the big secret: that no matter our biological age, WE DON’T FEEL ANY DIFFERENT. We think of ourselves as personally indestructible and immortal, just as we did as carefree children. We look in the mirror and see the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the ravages of gravity to a once taut jawline, but we still see us. We walk around and look out at the world through the same eyes and perspective we have always used. We are shocked when someone guesses our age and is pretty accurate. How can that be – I don’t feel 50 or 60 or 70 – how can they think that I’m really the age I carry on my driver’s license?
We know that despite the billions of dollars we collectively spend on looking younger, improving our health, and fighting the onslaught of time, our days are numbered. As a product of the carbon cycle, we start the inexorable march to death from the day we unwillingly leave the safety of the womb. We know intellectually that at some time, probably later but possibly sooner, we are going to no longer exist. Yet we live as if we will defy the odds and live forever. A soldier on a battlefield sees friends and enemies obliterated around him. It is his sense that the laws of chance do not personally apply to him that keeps him going back for more. It is this same ingrained notion that allows us to enjoy dangerous behaviors from mountain climbing and bungee jumping, to unprotected sex, smoking, and eating fast food. “You’re going to kill yourself,” is an admonition that makes us smile as we continue in activities we find pleasurable and rewarding.
The only time the veneer of personal exemption is cracked is when we are diagnosed with a terminal illness or undergo a life-threatening event such as a heart attack or stroke. The response is one of disbelief: this happens to other people, not to me. As long as we feel relatively healthy and can get around independently, we fail to internalize the danger in which we now live, convinced that we will be the one to beat the odds.
If only someone had “come clean” with the truth, we would have known as children what we know so clearly now: the mentally stable individual (versus those who live with the recurrent dream of the supposed peace of suicide) is never “ready to die.” It doesn’t matter how old we’ve grown nor how debilitated our bodies have become. Our spirit, our mental processes, our “soul,” if you will, burns unswervingly bright. We may have lapses of memory or prefer to spend our time in recollections of past glory, but we are still us. It is that belief in the permanency of our core that sets us apart from all other species on our planet. Our unwillingness to accept that we will ever cease to be leads us to religions that codify the belief into the comforts of resurrection or reincarnation. We stare at the void and fail to accept that it is our personal fate. We toss on our deathbed and echo the words of the English Queen, Elizabeth I: “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
We can reach out to the children in our lives and expose the secret we have at long last discovered. They may nod in agreement but they really don’t believe it. The idea of immortality is highly personal: death happens to other people. It may cause us grief but we are untouchable. Now that we know the truth, we can live comfortably on, as long as possible we expect, and death, when it comes, will carry only an immense astonishment: this cannot be happening to me.
Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Age Discrimination and the challenges of maturity. Performing therapeutic services for 30 years, she has researched the effects of cultural forces, employment and aging on the individual. The author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, she can be reached at http://www.virginiabola.com.