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It’s 3-2 in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. I have no idea how the runs scored. I’m supposed to be paying attention to this but instead I’m watching myself watch the game from about two feet to the left of myself and a foot or so back. The man on the couch becomes less me than some other person I don’t know, but I’m fascinated with him. I’m wondering how this man starring glassy-eyed at the screen is going to write about this game given that his head is clearly someplace else. I decide I have to try to help him so I try to jump into his head and shake him out of this funk. I jump. Everything goes black.
The world has been going to hell in a hand basket, a generation at a time, since the beginning of time. It’s amazing it hasn’t gotten there yet, but surely it will soon. At least that’s what you’d think if you listened to and believed your elders.
The impulse for one generation to think less of the generation which follows is unfortunate, but it’s understandable. Not to be overly dramatic about things, but I think it’s wrapped up in feelings of mortality and efforts to maintain a claim on youth and relevance just as one begins to feel like they no longer have either. Whether it’s at work or in sports or in culture or life in general, It can be sobering and maybe even scary when you see your “replacement” come online. Someone doing what you once did and on which you once prided yourself but don’t or can’t do anymore. It can be anything. Playing sports. Partying. Being part of the generation which gets more attention and praise at work or which sets the trends in music, fashion and culture.
Seeing those younger than you come to the fore makes you start to realize that the world will continue to function just fine without you occupying a prominent position in it. It makes you start to realize that, eventually, the world will continue to function without you in the world at all.
So what do most of us do? We make an extra effort to assert our relevance. If we can’t do it directly by continuing to occupy our old position of prominence, we do the next best thing: we tell a story about how things aren’t as good now as they were when we did occupy that position. We blast the younger generation as inferior or entitled and less worthy of their station than we were. Taken to extremes it leads us to not just disparage the younger generation but to blame them for everything we can think of that is wrong.
We don’t have to do this. The art of aging gracefully is not in defying the process but in living one’s life so that obsolescence is irrelevant. To always live the life we have to the best of our ability and to not try to live the life we used to have. And to realize that just because someone else is now living the life we used to have – the life of the trendsetter, the vibrant, the vanguard – doesn’t mean we never lived it.
I’m most familiar with this dynamic in baseball. There it means that a former player, rather than disparaging those who are up and coming, should be able to simply remember his own career fondly. To find his self worth in being the best manager or coach or broadcaster or retired guy doing something completely different that he can be instead of defining his self-worth by what he did between the ages of 18 and 37 or whatever and to blast the younger generation as a means of doing so. This applies to all of us, of course, in whatever walk of life we happen to find ourselves.
It’s insanely hard to do. Our culture venerates youth and collectively fears aging so much that the concept of living one’s life in the present instead of as some eternally young person is not something we talk about much let alone work on. Our addiction to nostalgia makes it even harder. So too do the aches and pains and health problems we experience as we get older. There are so many forces at work — good memories, bad impulses and physical things with which we can’t negotiate — telling us that all that matters was what happened when we were young. Getting past that is very, very hard. Most people don’t manage it well, I think.
But we should try to. We should try to live our lives in the present and to look to the future, not dwell on the past. We don’t get much time here as it is. Why limit our conscious appreciation of life to only the first 30-40 years of it?