An Existential Crisis Becomes a Plan for Longevity
When I was a younger man, my birthday was just another day of the year that came and went.
I looked down my nose at the people who celebrated the birthday, for it had become another reason for the capitalists of the world to separate consumers from their hard earned money. And age? Age was just another number as they would say, although a societal construct that was all-to-often used to elevate certain members of our society to lofty strata while relegating those considered too young or too old to the shadows. I know it sounds like I may spouting off some philosophical claptrap, but I will attest to espousing these opinions on birthdays and aging until I began to feel the onset of crisis after crossing certain age thresholds.
With age came many losses of the predictable and obvious kind, though still quite alarming. During my extremely late thirties, my mind began to lose a bit of its edge. Instead of the memories just coming to me as they did when I was younger, I was often reduced to foraging for them amidst a slight but persistent mind fog. The speed at which I was able to process and interpret new information was not what it once was. My mood swings became more capricious with the passage of each day.
My body changed dramatically. The muscles that powered my body during my youth were beginning to atrophy, as did my pride. And so putting my naked self before a bathroom mirror after a shower — a mirror which had been so flattering and kind to me for so many years — became a daily, self-imposed, cruel and unusual punishment exercise. After the horror at seeing what my body had become subsided, I would perform a personal lamentation for a stomach that had become soft and pudgy, a hairline that was almost no more, and a formerly robust testosterone that was beginning to wane. My knees cracked and popped in the mornings, and when the weather became cold all of my joints would suffer for it. All of sudden age wasn’t just a number for me anymore, for it had brought about consequences that I had not foreseen, and my life was rapidly changing as result. And then I arrived at forty, when the ground beneath me shifted a bit, throwing me off balance.
After turning forty, I was forced to face up to a fact of my life that was both stark and frightening: my life was probably more half over if the statistics on life expectancy were true. It had happened as they said it would. My age had literally snuck up on me. Upon this realization I sat down to ruminate, and for hours performed a mental accounting of my life. When finished with this exercise I contracted a severe case of the nerves because of what this accounting had revealed to me: I hadn’t accomplished anything of real substance since assuming the responsibilities that came with being a full-fledged adult.
During these reflections I often wondered what my peers, most of whom had gone on to secure great careers and sire off-spring, would think of me now. Those peers had thought very highly of me when I was a youth. I remembered basking in the applause of a raucous group of hundreds of students as I climbed the stairs that led to the auditorium stage, where I would accept the recognition as the most likely to succeed. Twenty-two years later I was forty and still unmarried, saddled with a job that was not going anywhere, and questioning why the thought of purchasing my own home had never entered into my mind. The rungs of adulthood that I’d scoffed at for years became reasons for me to bemoan my lack of progress. But what worried me the most was that I was about thirty or so years away from dying. I was walking down the other side of the hill, and quickly approaching the dirt under which my body would be permanently reposed.
As the New Year (2017) beckoned I made the resolution to increase the frequency of my visits to the gym and change my daily diet. And after two months of subsisting on my new diet and exercise regimen, a trip to my physician’s office provided the confirmation that I was hoping for: I was in good health. My blood pressure was normal, my pulse rate was steady, and I’d shed eight pounds of excess fat from my body. My abnormally large body felt svelte in clothes that were suddenly not so snug.
These favorable results added a bounce to my step, one that my physician noticed. Obviously impressed, the doctor offered a hearty congratulations for my accomplishments, which I enthusiastically accepted. I was so filled with pride that I was near fit to burst with it. Temporary euphoria about my physical health crowded out the anxieties about my age.
I was in the process of gathering my things to leave the examination room when my doctor stopped me in my tracks with a question. “Do you have any big plans for the coming year?” he asked.
And with that question, the anxieties which had temporarily been relegated to the peripheries of my mind returned to their original position once again. I suddenly felt like I was trapped in a corner.
These nagging anxieties were not a response to a lack of planning and preparation for the upcoming years. Turning forty incited a search for inspiration, and I had put together a bucket list of goals as a response to this ambition that was burning within me. My new worries were a byproduct of making my ambitions known to friends and acquaintances. Because publicizing my ambitions creates expectations in others, which created a burden that I was loathe to bear.
I have always preferred the element of surprise. I was the slow starter who waited until the last possible moment before overtaking the unsuspecting front runner. The cruel doctor was robbing me of this element and saddling me with the burdens of responsibility and expectation.
The physician seemed to be a meticulous note taker. I could imagine him saving and ultimately referring to his notes when asking for a progress report the next time we came into contact. And what happens if my report falls short of what he had been expecting? I would feel like I had let him down in some way. The temperature in the once cool examining room was beginning to rise, sweat formed around my neck and chest, and then trickled down my back and stomach. The pressure that I was so averse to was beginning to build.
“I’ll probably start writing a book, I think. And I really want to find a new job… and get married this year,” I said with a shrug.
I felt my stomach lurch, for it was suddenly full of poisonous regret. Not because of what I said but because of how I said it. I went through my list of plans for the rest of my life like I would a grocery list, with absolutely no conviction.
The doctor nodded “That’s good,” he said. “So when do you plan to start? And what are you going to start with?”
“I’ve already started with the book and I’m in the midst of looking for a job right now. I think I’ve got some time though. I am forty, but forty is the same as thirty now a days.”
“Yes, that may be true,” said the doctor. “But you are forty.”
I don’t like the way you put that.
I resented him for implying that I was getting older, though I begrudgingly understood his point. Perhaps it was time that I come to terms with the fact that I was approaching middle age, and if I wanted to accomplish at least some of the goals that I’d set for myself I was going to have to start hustling a little more. However, hustling is a trait that one is born with, it courses through the blood of those who exhibit it. They thrive on always having something that always needs to be done. I was never that type of person.
The hustlers that I knew preferred to get things done after the sun dipped below the horizon. I, on the other hand, coveted sleep when the hands of the clock struck nine, and relished the time spent with my three favorite companions: food, the couch, and Netflix. Even as I sat down to figure out how I would get started on all that it was that I needed to do, I wondered if it was possible for me to do it all.
The way I approached organized sports is a metaphor for how I approached life. When I played team basketball as a lanky teenager, my father was routinely among the onlookers that were in assembled the crowd. He was the person who was most in my corner, but he constantly bemoaned my lack of hustle on the basketball court during each game. Dad might have believed that I was lackadaisical on the court, but I was of the opinion that the span of the basketball court was too short since it took me a longer time than others to arrive at full speed.
I eventually quit basketball in favor of track and field, a sport that gave me the length of field that I longed for, but in which a fast start was still imperative for eventual success. My pudgy track coach repeatedly tried to impress the necessity of a fast start upon me. Still, I was always the last one to come out of the blocks, often finding myself in the position of having to catch up to the lead sprinter. Then I would turn on the switch, and begin to make up ground. Sometimes I was able to overtake that said front runner. Other times I would come up just short, although I’d made up a significant amount of the difference between the front runner and myself. I was satisfied with making up the difference if I could not win. Hustlers are not usually satisfied with making up the difference.
A switch had been turned on inside of me in the actual present, and an existential crisis ensued as a result. While in the midst of this existential crisis, my most pressing concern became the completion of the novel. But after several attempts at trying to write into the wee hours of the night and failing — I caught myself dozing in my chair after only a few hours of writing each night after work — and after evaluating my current prospects for a writing career — editors were resoundingly rejecting my ideas for stories — I knew that I was probably going to need a lot more time than the thirty-five or so years that I had left. But how was I to accrue the extra time that I needed? Time inexorably moves forward, bringing us closer to the long good-bye with the passing of each day.
After a night of less than stellar sleep, I awoke with the question of how I would acquire more time. Whilst walking by the list of goals that I’d pasted to my bedroom wall the idea struck me. Why not add another goal to the list that I’d already created and posted, one that would help to extend my time on this earth while giving me a goal to work toward. After coming up with the idea of posting a new goal, it didn’t take more than a few minutes for me to come up with the final and most important goal of them all. I was going to remain living until Halley’s Comet crossed orbit in 2061.
I missed seeing the comet the last time it zoomed past earth in 1986. How old was I then, twelve, or maybe thirteen? I may be too old to remember what I was doing the last time the comet came into view; however, I do recall that I was not a naturalist then, nor was I that interested in any kind of natural or scientific phenomena, and so the path traveled by some comet that I knew nothing about did not hold my interest at the time. But at forty, my appetite for books and knowledge of all kind — including science — was insatiable. I wanted to be able to map the constellations and recount the histories of the stars. So seven years after completing a class in astronomy at the local community college, and with thoughts of Halley’s Comet on my mind, I took a trip down to the basement and began rummaging through boxes for the astronomy book that I used for the class.
When I found the book I was surprised by its appearance. Apart from the dust that coated the front and back covers, it was in pristine condition. I spotted a chair that was situated in a corner of the basement. I walked over to the chair while wiping away the dust from the book’s cover, sat down to skim, and was quickly reminded of why I had abandoned the book in the first place.
Learning about space through the use of this, or any textbook, can be a bit of chore. The writing was dense and condensed, making it hard for my compromised eyesight to accommodate the text. And the writing was as dry as my skin in the winter months, all flaky and scaly, replete with words that I did not recognize, which made it exceedingly difficult for me to understand the text I came across. As I did when I was reading Shakespeare, I constantly interrupted my reading with searches for the definitions of esoteric words and phrases. These searches did increase my composition, but the pace of my reading slowed to a crawl. I spent two hours reading a few pages in the basement before putting the book away for the day.
I tried to keep at it in the days that followed, rising with the sun each morning for an hour or two of heavy reading. I stopped after a few weeks though, having decided that this avenue for learning was too difficult and time consuming to explore. I was defeated, and the sting from this defeat was acute, but I would not allow it time to linger.
Cosmos was a show that I’d discovered while scrolling through my Netflix feed for a viable option a few years previous, and it became my destination of retreat from the war with the astronomy book in the present. Narrated by a charismatic guide named Neil DeGrase Tyson, the show utilized animation, photographs and storytelling, combining these three elements with concrete facts to deliver curriculum that was easy to digest. I sat before my computer screen for two straight days, stopping only to take the required breaks for showering and eating. I was enthralled with the science that I had eschewed when I was young child, and came away from this marathon session with a firm grasp of the content and a renewed excitement for what was to come.
Halley’s Comet is set to make its next appearance in the year 2061. Therefore, I should be guaranteed at least another forty-two years of life, which is slightly more than fifty percent of my life span. You may be a bit skeptical of my guarantee since you are under the impression that life holds no guarantees. I know that the world is full of overt and hidden dangers that can easily snuff out my life on any day. Plus the dreaded cancer runs in my family; and even if I were to escape cancer my body will eventually break down, becoming more vulnerable to other diseases as I age. I often wonder about these issues too. But as is the case with the other goals that have been scrawled on white paper and posted to my bedroom wall, if it is written so shall it be fated to come into fruition, somehow.
Isn’t it ironic? It is with the execution of this essay that I have done what I’ve loathed in the past: created an expectation that others beyond my immediate purview can hold me too, but with no accompanying case of anxiety this time.
Now that I’ve given myself a little more room to breathe I can set out to achieve the goals that I’ve set. I’ll complete the second half of my book and then become a full-time writer. I’ll find the woman of my dreams and she and I will sire children, and those children will sire children of their own, my grandchildren. And one night we will all marvel at the coming of Halley’s Comet from the porch of the family home that I have purchased. In a world where the American dream has become a lot harder to reach, these are some very lofty expectations. But I still want you to hold me to them.