…. I was talking with someone I went to school with many years ago and it brought up all sorts of memories. She remembered things I had forgotten and I remembered things she had forgotten. That evening I was going over it all in my mind and I began to feel so sad. I had the feeling that my life was nearly over. I didn’t say anything even to my husband, but I haven't been able to shake off this sadness now for three weeks. I'm afraid of sinking into depression. I'm not one who runs to doctors for everything, but maybe I'll have to see a doctor at some point. But first I thought I'd see what you had to say about it. I'd be grateful for a little advice. Thanks for your website…. Julie
Yes, the passage of time is the most pathetic of all the mysteries. Other mysteries we can choose to ignore, but this one stalks us all our life and pounces on us in unexpected moments. We all get old, withering a bit as we do so, and eventually we die. Those are the terms, and they are not negotiable. So the only choice we have is to accept this or to try to resist it.
Resisting the thought of ageing and death won't help much; so the big question of our life is how to accept it. In the push and shove of our daily life we mostly try to bin that unpleasant thought – which of course isn't a successful move (this piece of rubbish keeps coming back). How can we bring ourselves to accept ageing and death, and still live with some degree of joy?
Still standing at a certain distance from it, we can say: the afternoon and evening of our life surely have as much meaning as the morning, and perhaps a lot more. “The afternoon of a human life,” wrote Carl Jung, “must have a significance of its own, and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” How could only mornings make sense? The covers of magazines you see in the supermarket never have tired and timeworn faces on them – only fresh and beautiful ones. That is bound to be a false picture of human life (and besides, all those images are Photoshopped). Unless we have managed somehow to avoid nearly everything, our older self has more depth and resonance than our youth. Let’s take credit, at least, for having lived.
But I don’t think that can be a satisfying answer by itself. Thinking about our life this way, we are like people standing at a distance, surveying it, measuring it, assessing it. But in reality we have no distance from our life. I think this is the key: no distance.
How do we get right into our life? When we use the words ‘my life’, what do we mean? Do we mean the dates they will write after our names when we die? – in other words, do we mean the length of our life? Or are we referring to the highlights of our life (like Eamonn Andrews’ TV programme, This is your Life)? Or could it be something else?
The something else is just this moment. This present moment, with its content (what I am doing, and what is happening around me): this is my life. This may sound a little forced, but it is not so at all. We are quite often immersed in this awareness. Whenever something wonderful is going on I am wholly taken by it; I am fully in that moment; I am immersed in my experience, there is no distance between me and my life. This ‘no distance’ is another word for love. When we love what we are doing, we forget about ourselves, we don’t say things like, ‘I haven't much time left.’ Our whole life is somehow crystallised in this moment.
It is only when we are bored or frightened or worried about something that we distance ourselves from the present moment; we attempt to stand outside our experience. Many people spend the bulk of their life alienated from themselves in this way. Someone said about a town he didn’t like, “I spent a whole year there one afternoon.” Time seems to drag when we are alienated; we stand outside our experience, counting minutes, wishing them past; we have nothing left but the slow movement of the hands of the clock. But when we immerse ourselves in our experience we pay no attention to the passage of time. I saw a graphic for a Mindfulness course, which showed a clock face on which each number was replaced by the word ‘Now’. The time is always now. Nothing ever happened except now. The moment of your birth was now (the midwife sent word to your father, “The baby was born just now.”). The moment of your death will likewise be now.
This is what the wise ones tell us. Go for depth, they all seem to say, rather than just for length. In this perspective, a realisation of the shortness of life may be the road to depth. “Let us know the shortness of our life / That we may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 89). Don’t be a spectator or a commentator on your life; instead immerse yourself fully in it. Measuring it is a way of being subtly separate from it. Worrying about the future is a way of being separate from the present. Wondering how long we have to live is a way of not living now.
Running through all this is the kind of awareness that is meditation – or mindfulness, if you prefer that word. There are many questions and answers on that topic in this website. (Use the ‘search’ tab on the front page if you want to look at any of them.) If you had to distil meditation or mindfulness down to a single and more familiar word, that word would be love.
In the ‘Jacob’s Well’ page of this website I reproduced a passage from a book I wrote 20 years ago – because it bears on your question.
All the best, Julie. Thank you for your question.