When I bought my new car, my only two requirements were that it have good merging power and a great stereo system. I want to hear all of the details when listening to Dopplereffekt, Dieselboy, or Dylan Drazen. I ended up going with the Bang & Olufsen system, and it’s exactly what I wanted. One thing I wasn’t prepared for, though, was Bach. I have about 200 Bach recordings out of 4,000 songs in rotation on my iPod, and whenever Bach comes into rotation, I’m captivated. I’ve been driving the car for a bit more than a month now, and the effect is still the same. No other music compares; I have plenty of Mozart and Beethoven, but it just doesn’t sound the same. It’s like switching from a black and white video to full color; the details are so crisp and vivid. I’ve never experienced Bach like this; it’s as if he wrote his music specifically for B&O.
Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.
I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.
Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:
WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:
DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.
You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.
I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;
There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.
Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:
I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..
Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.
I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.
A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.
The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.
Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.
Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.
I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.
Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.
Some other interesting questions arise:
- If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
- Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
- Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
- My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?