Going gentle

Dylan Thomas’ famous “Do not go gentle into that good night” is one of the great poems of the English language. It expresses an oddly ironic sentiment, however. The author was a tortured alcoholic, who never lived to old age, writing about his dying father who was probably just trying to come to peace. It pleads that “old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Like many of my generation, I encountered this poem in high school, where we thought that good romantics die at twenty-nine (still burning and raving), and thirty seemed impossibly old. (Later, in college, we learned to tune in, turn on, and drop out, and never to trust anyone over that age!) I now turn seventy-five, having somehow survived these prescriptions. Earlier in life I wondered why old people dodder. Now I know.

And I know quite well that “my words had forked no lightning,” but I don’t entirely blame myself for this failure. There is a glut of words out there, after all, and a monstrous cultural machine that decides what is worthy of note. I continue to write, to do my tiny part in the face of obscurity and now oblivion. Should I view death as a defeat, against which to rail, simply because I have not yet made a brilliant name for myself? Is recognition the right reason to do anything?

Ageing is a catastrophe if you view it as a disease. And there is certainly a close alliance of ageing and disease, both at the cellular level and as an experience of the elderly. The old are more vulnerable to illness, in more pain, less able. Ageing is a process of degeneration, and dying “of old age” generally means dying of some degenerative disease. Heroic efforts are underway to identify the molecular and genetic causes of ageing and to find the fountain of youth. While I don’t disapprove, I don’t particularly care either. If a pill or procedure is eventually discovered that enables people to halt ageing and even reset their biological clock, it will probably be too late for me.

Let me propose a different point of view: old age is a stage of development. We age as a function of unfolding, which only happens to coincide with the passage of time. From the get-go, the processes of degeneration are inseparable from those of development. The cells of the embryo, multiplying and differentiating in the womb, have already begun a countdown toward their final destiny. The hundred trillion cells that make up the adult human body began as a single cell, which divides again and again to form the specialized types of cells of the various organs and tissues. For complex and not entirely understood reasons, there is a limit to how many times these cells can divide. This covers roughly the minimum required to make an adult body that can reproduce itself—and not much more. The limit sets a lifespan for the body. If it could be extended, so could the lifespan, and that is the focus of much research on longevity.

My point here, however, is to put ageing in the context of development—as part of the disambiguation of the individual that begins in the womb and culminates in death. Experience and the process of psychological development make you you rather than someone else you might have been. The choices we make are part of this development and are largely irreversible. We begin as quite plastic and general beings and end up somewhat rigid and quite specific beings. We crawl out onto a limb from which there is no return. Viewed this way, old age is not a disease or catastrophe but a developmental stage of life, part of the unfolding. If—through drugs or gene therapy—it becomes possible to have a thirty-year-old body again, what would it mean for my brain to be rejuvenated that way? If my brain’s youthful plasticity were restored, would I be the same person? Surely I would want to retain the memories since age thirty, and the development of my personality and understanding that occurred since then. I am not convinced that a brain can function as though young, yet with the outlook and wisdom of the old. Good upbringing seems more promising toward that end than therapeutics late in life. And there is no way to undo the choices I have made along the way, which have defined who I am.

The survival instinct, built into every creature, is a necessary feature without which it could not have come to exist. Those creatures lacking such an instinct would not live long enough to reproduce and would be excluded through the filter of natural selection. In other words, the drive to keep on living is particularly appropriate to young organisms until they have replaced themselves with the next generation. It may be less biologically relevant later on. As conscious beings, of course, we have other reasons to be attached to living than the body’s natural ones. But to me it is helpful to keep in mind my biological context. It makes more sense for thirty-year-olds to “rage against the dying of the light” than for septuagenarians. The metaphor itself is suggestive. The light dies every twenty-four hours, then also resumes for a new dawn. I might wish the day were longer, like a young child who rebels against bedtime, but I’ve gotten to live my day and others will get to live theirs.

Everyone may have a different idea of the phases of their life. I recognize my childhood as probably the happiest epoch (and certainly most carefree). Adolescence turned darker, more serious and introverted. Young adulthood was about intellectual and emotional discovery, personal growth, and career. Age fifty seemed a continental divide, all downhill on the far side. But it began a productive period of consolidation and “giving back” more than personal expansion. By age seventy I had begun to think of wrapping up loose ends in a phase of completion. Currently, I think about “making peace” with myself. Whatever that turns out to mean, it seems like a necessary preparation for a graceful finale. Of course, I only need to make peace because I have been at war. In my case, inner conflicts have mostly not had dramatic outer consequences. But I feel them no less.

I think of this program, of coming to inner peace, as an aspect of living deliberately, as though my life were a work of art I am trying to finish before a literal deadline. Every artist knows that a medium has its own properties that resist control. One’s life is no exception. There is nothing I can do to change the past, for example, though I could lie to myself or change it in memory. But art is not only about imposing one’s will on materials according to a preconceived vision; it’s also a kind of experimental research. Artists welcome accidents or unexpected effects. The game adjusts to see what can be done with them. So it is with the course of one’s life, in many ways a series of inadvertent events, felicitous or no. What can I do now with what I have become? And now?

Of course, artists sometimes get frustrated and want to tear up the work and start over. Alternatively, they may just want to put final touches on something with which they are basically satisfied. Or maybe they are not as satisfied as they would like but understand the risk of over-working the piece, ironically spoiling it. Artworks are a literal canvas on which artists paint their inner struggles. Perfecting a work is a matter of coming to an inner resolution about it. And that is more than a matter of the objective product or of what someone else thinks of it, as important as those may be. I am now one of those grave men, nearing death, whom Dylan Thomas admonishes to rage. But frankly I do not see the benefit now of such impetuosity. It may provide momentary release, helpful in mid-life. What I seek instead is resolution before the final release.