Tag Archives: it’s only life

Growing Old

A while ago a friend asked me to critique her writing. I said “You sound like a teenager”. It was less patronizing than it might have been, because she was a teenager, although I guess still pretty patronizing. Then she asked me for an explanation, and I didn’t have one, because some kind of “essence of teenagerdom” is hard to place.

But recently I was thinking about this again, because I was rereading Byron’s “Growing Old”. Part of his Don Juan, it’s a series of reflections about turning thirty (really, Byron? Growing Old? Thirty?). I was reading it because I had read it when I was fifteen or so, and gotten some things out of it, and I’d resolved to reread it when I was older to see if I could get anything else:

But now at thirty years my hair is grey—
(I wonder what it will be like at forty ?
I thought of a peruke the other day—)
My heart is not much greener ; and, in short, I
Have squandered my whole summer while ’twas May,
And feel no more the spirit to retort ; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul invincible.

And lo and behold, I do sympathize a lot more now. For example, what’s with my hair? It’s not turning grey. But it is falling out en masse. I haven’t thought about a peruke – which I think it one of those big white old-timey wigs George Washington used to wear – yet. But maybe I should.

But moving on:

No more—no more—Oh ! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new ;
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee.
Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew ?
Alas ! ’twas not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.

There’s something very raw about being young. I remember reading a psychotherapy book that, like most psychotherapy books, talks about childhood trauma. Their prescription was that it gets buried under lots of layers of unconscious baggage, and you need to bring it to the surface. Once it’s at the surface, the patient’s reaction should be something like “That? That was what bothered me all this time?” Because when you’re a child, everything is more intense. Yeah, some childhood trauma is getting beaten or abused. But other childhood trauma is getting called names on the playground, or being left alone without knowing where your parents were. I find a lot of the “inner child” school of psychology to be kind of bunk, but I find interesting the idea of your inner child as somebody who you’re much stronger than, somebody who they respect because you’ve developed really powerful psychological coping mechanisms they could never dream of, so that you’re a protector figure.

Ozy talks about this a lot in the context of their borderline personality disorder. I tend to think of a lot of symptoms of borderline as being associated with neoteny – a preservation of childlikeness into adulthood (I don’t know how orthodox this is). For Ozy, everything is still raw, maybe will always be raw. Every even slightly good thing that happens delights them. Every even slightly bad thing that happen traumatizes them.

The flip side of childhood trauma is childhood wonder. When you’re young, and to a lesser degree when you’re a teenager and even in your early twenties, you have a great capacity to be amazed at the raw beauty of the world. As you grow older, you get less direct exposure to things as you have more and more schemas to put them in: “Oh, yeah, that’s a beautiful sunset, it looks a lot like the five thousand other sunsets I’ve seen. I’ll just tag it ‘sunset’ and move on.” There’s a big loss there, but there’s a compensatory gain:

No more–no more–Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though Heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.

That last couplet really resonates with me. You tend to think of judgment and wisdom as something you gain by laborious cultivation. And here’s Byron, saying “Somehow I seem to have gotten some good qualities. God only knows how that happened. Seriously, of all people, me?”

A lot of the time we make fun of teenagers for having crazy high libido. And then they grow older, and their sex drive calms down a little bit. I actually haven’t checked whether anyone knows if this is due to objective reductions in hormone levels, or if maybe once you’ve gone on a couple of dates and been in a couple of relationships it’s no longer quite so exciting.

But it’s not just sex. There’s this entire complex of teenage and early-twenties things around sex and extreme politics and mysticism and fashion, and some of it is praiseworthy in the sense of being really excited about new things, and part of it is just not having any idea what you’re doing, so that realistic opportunities and insane opportunities look about the same. And so you end up on this roller coaster of grandiose plans, inevitable letdowns, gnawing horrible fears, and unexpected relief. And then eventually you kind of bottom out and stop doing this.

I don’t know if this is biological either. Michael Vassar (and as far as I know no one else) theorizes about a “second puberty” in the late teens/early twenties where the brain starts to take on an adult form. There’s some evidence for – for example, this is the age at which a lot of previously latent mental disorders like schizophrenia develop. And there’s some evidence against – nobody had a conception of teenagerdom until like 1940s America or so. But it’s certainly a useful concept. Just as after puberty dies down you kind of naturally stop being so concerned about sex and acne and whatever, so after second puberty get a deal of judgment. You stop being so concerned about…what?

What is the end of Fame ? ’tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper :
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour ;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture and worse bust.

Erikson calls the psychological crisis of the teenage years “identity versus role confusion”, and Reb Wiki’s commentary on his work adds that:

Erikson does note that the time of identity crisis for persons of genius is frequently prolonged. He further notes that in our industrial society, identity formation tends to be long, because it takes us so long to gain the skills needed for adulthood’s tasks in our technological world. So… we do not have an exact time span in which to find ourselves. It doesn’t happen automatically at eighteen or at twenty-one. A very approximate rule of thumb for our society would put the end somewhere in one’s twenties.

Let me take a stab at that “persons of genius” exemption, since some of my friends whom I’ve gotten a chance to observe are probably smart enough to qualify.

Anyone even a little bit smarter than normal gets feted and celebrated as a kid. I remember my fourth grade teacher telling my parents during a conference that “your son needs to go into science so he can cure cancer.” This is dumb. In a school of a thousand people, you can be the smartest kid in the school, more than smart enough to impress your teachers – and still be only one of the 300,000 smartest people in the country. If those other 300,000 people didn’t cure cancer, there’s a pretty good chance your son won’t either. But when you’re a kid, all you have to do to look smart is read the occasional science book and cultivate an interest in quarks. You can just go around saying “Did you know there are six types of quarks?” and everyone will think you’re some kind of genius.

Then you grow older. You reach the point where nobody thinks you’re a genius unless you can prove some kind of new result, which is a lot harder. You go to a good college, and suddenly you’re in an environment preselected so that everybody else is about as smart as you are. If you’ve been coasting through life on being able to name all six types of quark (and who’s going to know if you get one wrong?) this is pretty disorienting.

And so part of Erikson’s “role confusion” is thinking “Wait, I was the guy who was going to cure cancer. I can feel my status slipping away from me as I become more and more mediocre. What am I going to do to prove that I really am that cool?”

I think a lot of the pathologies of adolescence are part of that urge, hollow promises of regaining lost status. The key is to provide a narrative in which you are great and which is impervious to external disconfirmation. Extremist politics, mysticism and fashion all fit the bill for different personalities.

Along with the pathologies there were the ill-advised adventures. “I’m going to be a great person by…um…exercising an hour a day, from now on, all the time, and eventually becoming really buff.” Lasted a month. Then “I’m going to be a great person by…um…learning to speak ten languages, one at a time.” Lasted until first encounter with the Finnish case system. “I’m going to become a great person by…” The problem with all of these were that none of these were things I actually wanted to do (cf Randall Munroe, “Never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.”)

Actually, forget Randall Munroe. The best related quote is a different Monroe, who said that “although you are ambitious, you have no ambition.” And so:

Ambition was my idol, which was broken
Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure ;
And the two last have left me many a token
O’er which reflection may be made at leisure :
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
‘Time is, Time was, Time’s past’ : a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes—
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.

One of the key points of the rationalist community is to learn to “optimize” rather than “satisfice” things, and it’s a useful lesson. But everyone sometimes needs reverse advice, and younger me – and younger lots of people – didn’t really understand satisficing.

When I was about ten, I decided to just optimize my entire life. I made a schedule of exactly what I would do every day – each minute filled with some sort of very productive character-building activity. Then I followed it for two days. Then I gave up and felt bad about it for a while.

That’s the sort of optimizing that only Young Scott could love. But I’ve been reading On The Road recently, and I wonder if the sort of Beat culture of authenticity is a different kind of optimizing, where you’re throwing everything at being different and more real, to the point of abandoning family and financial stability and whatever else.

There’s a place for this kind of optimization, if it’s what you want to do. But I eventually noticed that attempts to optimize my life and be maximally good were making me kind of miserable. I think that’s where the judgment part comes in. You learn when it’s okay to stop getting mad at yourself for not being perfect and take a little bit of time to relax and enjoy.

Byron is maybe a bad example of learning to overcome ambition, since he did kind of become super famous. But even that can be a kind of relaxing ambition. You learn what you’re good at, even if it’s something like poetry that might not be the most lucrative and world-changing thing around, and you focus on that. You’re not going to be Julius Caesar, but you might be Lord Byron. Or if not Lord Byron, you might at least have a career and be good at it. Role confusion gives way to identity.

(even MIRI, the most healthily ambitious people I know, have backed down from “we will save the world all by ourselves, right now” to “we will contribute an important part in an eventual effort to save the world”)

In fact, I think that’s the most important part of the solution, the part that makes it a little more dignified than abject surrender to being a cog in the machine. Vague formless ambition crystallizes into a couple of things that you’re good at and want to pursue, and then it doesn’t seem like ambition any longer. It just seems like the thing you’re doing.

Byron also got one other thing right, which was that he was able to sacrifice ambition to pleasure. This seems a better shrine to sacrifice at than “akrasia” or “conformity” or “vague feelings that I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But I, being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass ;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’

Seems like another riff on the same subject. Ambition and the raw energy of youth turning to a vague fondness that he got things mostly right, for a human.

I hate to change poets in midstream, but Chesterton says much the same:

…the doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.

The theme to me seems the same. Youth is scary. Everything is important. Philosophy seems perilously close. Every tiny thing inspires doubts. Then “there is strength in striking root and good in growing old”. You get a base. You know where you are standing. Things feel calmer and safer. You go from role confusion to identity.

Byron talks of “reading your Bible and minding your purse”. Chesterton talks about “we have marriage and a creed”. I read these as kind of similar. It’s about finding an ideology – in contrast to the constant ideology-searching of youth where you get your Communists and your Daoist and your anarchists and whatever. And then it’s about turning to be more interested in the everyday world of things like marriage and family and relationships and balancing your checkbook.

If this were about suddenly ceasing to care about ideas, then it would be monstrous and I’d be trying to resist it every way I can. But neither Chesterton nor Byron became intellectual lightweights in their old age. I think of it as getting to participate in the world of ideas because you want to, rather than because you have to. In Jung’s words, “swimming rather than drowning”. Or since the ocean of thought is maybe too big for a swimming metaphor, you’re still out at sea, but you’ve got a nice sturdy ship instead of a Neurath’s boat where you have to build your vessel while you’re sailing on it.

In an unhealthy society, it can be dangerous to lose revolutionary fervor. But in a healthy society, it seems to be a natural and important process. I don’t know if our society is healthy enough for me to be entirely comfortable with it. There are a lot of people who can’t get a stable career, people who are trying as hard as they can. But even in a revolution you need a couple of people to keep things running and maybe donate money earned at a stable job to the people with more zeal (see: Engels), and in the spirit of satisficing rather than optimizing I’m pretty okay with this role.

…or maybe you stay an anarchist or a Daoist or a communist. But then it’s because you’re set in that philosophy and you like it and you’re making a stand there, rather than because it’s your Experiment Of The Month. It’s good to have Experiments Of The Month – high expected value of information, low transaction costs for changing your mind – but it’s also a relief to be done with that. Identity in place of role confusion. As for the adult world of relationships and checkbooks, it’s a different and lower-variance way of contributing to the community, and if you’re lucky you can have kids and start the whole cycle over again.

Yesterday I turned thirty years old. People keep asking me how I feel about it. I think I agree with Byron. I passed my youth not too unpleasantly. And if I had it over again, it’d pass. So thank the stars that matters are no worse.