I guess I’ve reached the point in my life where it’s easier, and sometimes a better choice, to stop caring so much about things. What is gained by investing emotionally or intellectually? What difference is made? Not much that I can see. Investment implies a return, and where there is no return, or where there is a negative result, it is wiser not to invest.
I’m past the mid-point of my years on earth. By rational choice, I have no religious or spiritual belief, and I am confident that there is no afterlife, good or bad or indifferent, that will follow my earthly life. This is it. I am beginning to be less afraid of death.
As I examine my life, I find that I’ve done very little. I’m not the sort of person who ever expected to leave any sort of legacy, physical or creative, and in the big scheme of things (such as it is), I don’t think legacy is important. But to get to this point and feel as though you’ve pretty much wasted your life is … not sad, exactly, but … well, I can’t find the word. Not exactly frustrating, but somewhere between sad and frustrating, with a current of hopelessness and a knowledge that nothing can be changed. Despair! Perhaps that’s it. It’s the feeling one has when driving a car and a small animal runs out in front of you and there’s nowhere to go and you know you can’t avoid hitting it – your choices are to cross the yellow line and have a head-on collision, or run off the other side of the road into a tree, or run over the animal. Self-preservation demands destruction of another living creature, and there is a sense of profound despair as the car thumps over the little body. [I wonder how many car-into-pole-or-tree crashes are sacrificial, done to save the life of an animal? We’ll never know, will we? Suicide by squirrel?]
I aspired to a professional musical life, but given my circumstances – growing up in a culturally defunct region and a financially limited family, and with limited physical (vocal) abilities – I never achieved, and never will achieve, true musical expression or be able to perform at a level that satisfies my desires or rises to the level of my musical understanding. I can’t express the profound frustration and disappointment that comes in recognizing my vocal limitations. In my heart and mind, I know what I could have achieved had I been born with a better voice, and perhaps if, as a teenager, my voice had not been permanently damaged by a young and ignorant choral director. (Every time I sing, it’s a struggle to get around, or over, that damage, and I am reminded of what I lost all those years ago.) And if I had been able to have piano lessons at an early age...No blame attaches there; it simply was not possible. But still, I often wonder.
I’ve aspired to be intellectual, and I’ve often felt intellectual, but I’m probably not. I’m intelligent, but I was brought up in such ignorance and straitened circumstances that I’m still trying to make up for it. I read vast reams of fiction, nonfiction, history... I think. Sometimes, I write. At one time I wrote a great deal of poetry, much of it quite good, but at tremendous emotional cost. To be a true intellectual requires that one have a fund of knowledge broad and deep enough to bring a sort of unification of understanding to all one’s thoughts and actions. It requires a great deal of learning. I don’t have enough time left in my life to achieve it. And it is sad to understand what will not be achieved.
When I knew I could not have a career as a musician, I went into librarianship. I’ve enjoyed a modest career, first as a corporate information specialist, and later and to a much lesser degree, as an independent information consultant. Though I’m very, very good at what I do, I’ve not been successful professionally. For example, after fifteen years’ hard investment in a leadership position at a large corporation, a new manager told me that I had contributed nothing of value to the organization. Why had I bothered to work so hard to serve my clients? My clients loved my work, and made a very strong case for me to management, but it made no difference. My work there was obliterated. After I left, it was as though I had never been there at all. For fifteen years, that work had been the anchor of my intellectual existence, and was a defining aspect of my life. Why did I bother? I wasted fifteen years of my life, delayed starting a family, eroded relationships, and ended up with nothing. My work as an independent consultant is a challenge for personal reasons that have less to do with the work itself and more to do with my state of mind. I’m in a sort of permanent paralysis that hinders initiation and completion. My tendency toward solitary endeavors is part of the situation.
I end up in despairing moods. Despair is not the same as depression; I’ve lived with depression all my life and I know when I’m in a depressive state, and when I’m not. Despair is different; there’s a hopelessness to it, a feeling of “why bother?” that is fundamentally different than the static, neutral greyness and immobility of depression. If I were depressed today, for example, I wouldn’t (couldn't) be writing.
Despair comes over me when, for example, the town in which I live – not only residents, but the town itself – decides that we have too many trees. Big ones, little ones, living and dead, cut them down, grind them up, put them in the landfills. The loss of trees, including dead trees, is only an indication of the profound ignorance that drives these foolhardy, selfish, short-sighted choices. And it is this profound ignorance of our natural world that drives me to despair because it will kill us all. (As I write, I can hear a chain saw running nearby.) Yes, I tried dealing with the town. No response. Nothing. Why should I bother? It just hurts too much.
Despair comes over me in a particularly long-running board game that seems to have no end and just gets more and more difficult as the years go by. The details don’t matter, except that it is like some sort of persistent nightmare creature that sucks time, commitment, energy, intellect, and money and never seems to stop slavering for more. When I look in the mirror and see that I appear ten years older than I ought to look, I trace it directly to my participation in this particular board game. So much of what I achieved there, on my own and in collaboration with others, has been obliterated by carelessness and now has to be re-built. There are good reasons why I remain engaged there and will continue so for at least another few years. The reasons I stay are vastly different from the reasons I joined in the first place, and that alone may make it easier. But it is tough going and fills me with despair over the wasted years, wasted money, wasted care.
Despair comes over me during certain choral performances when I realize that all the time and care I have invested in musical preparation has been wasted, as the careless performance of others around me makes my presence irrelevant and renders me essentially nonexistent in the ensemble. Why do I bother?
And all the rest of my despair that I won’t write about here – even those closest to me have no idea. No. Idea. But it is all with me every day, every moment. I question all my decisions, all my life choices, all my relationships, all my interactions, all my endeavors and despair at the sheer waste. At the top of this essay, I wrote, “As I examine my life, I find that I’ve done very little.” The things I’ve invested myself in turned out not to matter. I suppose every person comes to this realization at some point; for me, it’s now and fairly constant.
There’s a masterful short story by A.S. Byatt – “Baglady” – in which a woman visiting in a foreign country becomes lost, and eventually trapped, in a vast shopping mall, where everything is indecipherable and brightly glittering and confusing and shifting and menacing. She despaired of being found, and despaired of finding her way out. I read it once years ago, and will never read it again. I can recall every glittering detail. It terrified me because it felt too much like real life.
So now I’ve wasted another hour of my life on this pseudo-scrutiny and obscure analysis. The rest of the day will be a fearful scramble.