Perhaps the biggest problem with life is that it is lived in order.
There are a lot of trite aphorisms with strong grains of truth along these lines. Youth is wasted on the young. If I knew then what I know now. But these are actually not the kind of chronological disorder that I’m focusing on herein. Rather, they actually rely on the same faulty logic about chronology that plagues all of our behavior – namely, that things get better. That we get better, smarter, wiser with time. That somehow experience is a teacher that never dozes off or skips a class or berates us too harshly for us to learn properly, but that we always, in some rigid linear fashion, learn a progressive amount from what we have been through.
In the words of friend and former debater Farhan Ali, “I call bullshit on this.” (It sounds somehow softer and more lovable in Farhan’s vaguely Kuwaiti Indian accent.)
The other flawed implication of the linear age model for improving our viewpoint is that it ignores the impacts of the lenses of various phases in the cycle of our lives. We assume that adults are wiser than predominantly more impulsive teenagers, that even teens have a leg up on wide-eyed naive children, that those retired or retiring from life have more insight into it than those in the throes of work, that those closest to death have the most understanding of living. There are certainly individuals who follow these guidelines, but it seems to me there are just as many exceptions. Moreover, it seems highly problematic to just assume that the later stages of life provide more understanding of it when it is imperiled by the unique challenges of that phase of existence. Older age, for example, is a time plagued by a diminishing amount of control of one’s body, when people tend to become markedly less sure of things and start to feel the age-old optimism of ever-upward improvement shift in themselves. These processes are inevitable and cannot be blamed on those experiencing them, but at the same time they directly contradict the notion of linear upward growth in quality of life and perspective. It is ludicrous to expect people in this phase of their life to be eternally growing in optimism as their body and future expectations start to turn against them, yet the functions of chronological trajectories do just that. And thus we somehow expect the older generations to reach the pinnacle of hope and elation just as they realistically have to come to grips with being on the downslope of their own time on Earth.
Worse still, the acknowledgement of any downslope too often becomes tantamount to an unmitigated disaster because we are unable to accept retraction, retreat, or repeals without getting histrionic. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, to be sure, but it’s inherited from a culture that makes us choose between growth and bankruptcy, that encourages us to live at the absolute furthest extent of our means whenever our own income or worth expands, that will offer us credit and loans beyond our means at the first sign of prosperity. It’s not merely that we inculcate a belief in growth and linear progression that causes problems, but we instill an even worse inverse perception that going backwards might as well be utter collapse. No wonder so much of our society turns to drugs (prescribed, illegal, or the worst of all of them, alcohol) at the first sign of failure or hardship. We can’t cope, by and large, with the idea that the future may be worse than the past, that any year ahead of us could be something other than our best year ever. People are quick to respond to deaths and divorces, things that should be devastating setbacks with placatory words of optimism and things to look forward to. I know I dealt with this and it made me sick. A healthier, more reasonable acknowledgement would be to recognize that the next year or two will probably be the worst of your life to date, which still may not be the worst of all-time. But that this does not mean having to give up, because life is an unpredictable wave, not some unflinching pyramid to be climbed at the steepest possible angle. I tried to share this kind of viewpoint with other recent divorcees I reconnected with recently and they seemed staunchly resistant to it, unable to acknowledge that life can get worse sometimes, trying to echo their friends who put it in a context of being for the best somehow. It was frustrating.
And I get it, in part. I think people want to keep hope alive. And hope is a very good thing, “maybe the best of things.” Truly. But hope is as far from the expectation of linear improvement as practice is from the assumption that one will be the next Michael Jordan or Barack Obama. And only an idiot would tell the middle school kid shooting freethrows in the gym or the debater staying late after practice to go over her case one more time that they are destined to attain the highest heights imaginable. Yet that’s the mythology that creeps into us when we expect linear progression, when we expect that everything always gets better. And the radical disappointment from falling short is tantamount to living one’s whole life in regret that one isn’t always at the very top. In other words, it’s a way to manufacture unhappiness and feelings of failure from all kinds of things that should reasonably amount to a life well lived.
Which illuminates perhaps the most insidious problem of chronology in our life, which is that it clouds and overrides the past. The past can so rarely be appreciated for what it truly was, instead being overshadowed by the context of the precise moment of the fleeting present. The entire past winds up as a giant stepping stone for wherever one is at the second one chooses to look at it, and the understanding of what those days and months and years meant entirely changes based on whether times are good or bad now. If one is currently satisfied and feels they are on the expected conveyor belt toward a better future, all manner of disaster, transgression, and pain can be overlooked as mere necessities on the road to bliss. Whereas if one is currently holistically dissatisfied and disappointed, even the highlights of the past are a jumble of wrong turns and missed opportunities. Even those who put it in the proper proportion and perspective, more even-keel souls, have a tendency to mute the effects of the past, to under-appreciate it or put it in a box of less experienced decisions when one had so much to learn and grow from.
It is precisely this perspective about the past that I seek to question. Just because we march through the days one at a time in irreversible lock step does not mean that we are moving forward. And to truly understand and appreciate our lives for what they are, I believe it’s crucial to mine the past not just for opportunities to learn more and gain a greater perspective, but for actual insights into when we might have been better people, when, in the past, we might have understood more about the world. Experience is capable of teaching us, but it’s also capable of corrupting us (see yesterday), of ruining our spirit, of inflicting us with trauma and paranoia and the wrong motivations and perspectives that can take years to undo just to get back to zero. We pick up addictions, we fall into groups of people that mislead or distract us, we start spending our time poorly and lose our way. If we recognize these as mistakes instead of insisting that we are all in some sort of linear fairy tale, then we can harness the power of the past to right our path and (yes) try improve over time. The barriers to understanding this somewhat obvious reality of life are part of why it’s so hard for people to break down and go to rehab when they need it, why it’s so hard for so many people to admit fault for things and just apologize properly. The idea that we have gone backwards at any point in our life is anathmetic (a word I think I’ve made up, derived from anathema) to our perspective on our own human spirit. We think that to admit a setback is to crush hope, as though improvement in a linear permanent fashion were the only possible option and anything standing against that meant we were either broken or on an infinite downward spiral, as though motion were always perpetual and it either moved one way or the other.
The truth of life is always muddier and more complicated and more unpredictable than we want to make it. It’s absurd to think that we grow endlessly. That’s cancer, that’s steroids, that’s capitalism. We change endlessly, to be sure, but it’s just as likely to be for the worse. And only through understanding that can we not only keep ourselves from being bad people, but we can keep ourselves in perspective. Yes, of course the goal should always be to find hope and improvement. But sometimes that might require recognizing that, say, 1998 was our best year, that maybe this year is our worst, and that this knowledge and understanding can be harnessed to parse what is most meaningful and valuable about life to try to improve next year. Maybe not to make it our best, or even better than this year, but to make it better than it would have been if we just kept assuming that years would somehow unflinchingly get better over time without our help.