Arthur C. Brooks, ‘Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think’, Atlantic Monthly (June 2019)
Refreshingly thoughtful article about living to compete to stay at peak until the last gasp vs. understanding the life cycle, and valuing stages which are not peak achievement.
Brooks refers to the Hindu triadic life pattern: trainee, materialist, reflection. I always liked that division of life into three stages.
I would merely caution Brooks that the life pattern of female and male can be very different. Women often come to their peak much later than men, because mothering pulls back on other things, because sexism for heavens sake.
In his later life my father said wistfully he envied me that I had done so much that I wanted to do. I heard a note of deep yearning in his voice and alerted. “What have you missed doing so much?’ I asked him and he spoke of his boyhood dreams of priesthood. I had heard that before but it had always seemed packed away. Perhaps the way it persistently came up every few years should have been noticed, but we all knew my mother would never have stood for it. Nor was I keen for to him priesthood meant Christianity.
But this was his true dream so I rallied round, faithful priestess, good daughter. I told him about the Hindu third stage of life and how appropriate his dream was. He replied sadly he could not handle Greek and Latin (High Church requirements). ‘”You’re living in America now” I said, “I bet they don’t demand that – and anyway the Church is desperate for recruits. You can do it.”
He did it and it made him very happy, quietly tending to an obscure American parish. Also they made him do counselling which had very good effects both for him and for me.
I wholeheartedly agree with Brooks that there is an insane pressure to perform at top level, constantly. So we have an exhausted, burned out workforce, sickly and unproductive. We have a bullying society because of all those striving wannabes frantically kicking others downwards in order to go upward.
The UK Tories worship “aspiration” and obsess on “hardworking” families. I admire aspiration but aspiration to be kind, loyal, generous, decent. Hardworking is useful for short periods, to create the conditions so you don’t have to. But then Tories only want the lower orders to be hardworking really.
Back when I first knew my beloved and became pregnant I skidded into floods of tears in the middle months. We were at a party and I had been dancing, but found I had to stop. He was puzzled as he held me. I sobbed.
“This isn’t ME. I’m used to flashing into the centre, being wonderful, fascinating everyone within minutes. I love that. How can I do it if I can’t dance … and my energy is going sludgy.” I crumpled completely, totally lost.
He said gently “Ah I think you have to learn to be more like me. You know, it’s all right if you’re boring. Not the end of the world.”
But it was. The end of the world as I knew it. All the breath went from my body and it was some time before my brain restarted. I had always had to be bright, clever, impressive (to measure up to a magnificently beautiful mama, to get her attention).
I learned this strange new skill, a little, with John’s help.
When my greatness ended, when House of the Goddess had to end, and the new House eventually showed it could not flourish, I grieved hard. I was so used to having Big Shan to open doors for me, to attract people, to lift me and make life wonderful. This wasn’t the temporary sluggishness of pregnancy and there was no hidden gift or so it seemed. It was so hard to be ordinary when I had not been ordinary for a couple of decades. It wasn’t that I missed the status really, and it was never about being famous, or money. I just felt lost in a world where things were all small, including me.
Sad years, waiting to see if that was life, over. It was far worse because my health had collapsed so I felt unable to start something else. I had struggles in my marriage too, so there was little to give me happiness or worth except making a living for my family.
Eventually my new age began and my beloved Welsh research developed. Nor do I want it to reopen being famous (I was only ever modestly famous). I want respect for the work from those who know a bit about it, and I want to be able to enjoy it, for bureaucracy and cancer to get out the way. So far so good.
Leo Carew adds to this, making a powerful case for living simply, and his description holds important insight
He stayed a year on an Outer Hebridean island alone with his dog and a basic subsistence lifestyle, to write a book. He said it was heaven so I wonder why he left as he said he deeply did not want to and it can’t have been expensive. Anyway he noticed quite quickly how his life changed.
” One morning, I was struck by the particular beauty of the grain on the table next to me. It was old, and worn, and the sunlight falling over its surface was mesmeric.” (My bold emphasis.)
“… suddenly, it was everywhere. In Mufasa’s fur, the copper kettle, flakes of cheese, rain running off the windows. Everything acquired texture, symmetry and a sense of the extraordinary. In some profound, energetic and hitherto alien way, the world had come alive.”
It seems crass, flip to say this sounds like acid but it does. Much more important he reached it without a drug. He puzzles why it happened and then says among other possibilities –
“Maybe it was a life of unbroken cause and effect: every task (hunting, chopping firewood, charging oil lamps) followed by an elemental reward (being fed, being warm, having light).”
I think that is it. By going away, being alone, he cut away the bureaucratic commands to carry out meaningless activities. There was no peer pressure to do stupid things, cruel things, fashionable things. An action made food, or warmth, or moved him somewhere he could see a beauty.
The industrial revolution forced us to live by clocks, meaningless time; to pull switches and bear loads that had nothing directly to do with supper, sex, hugs or fun. Peasants knew to milk a cow at dawn (whenever dawn happened) because the cow’s udders swelled and we needed the milk. Starting work at 09.00 has no such meaning. It just serves the bosses (unless we need to connect with others and with net tech same -time meeting is less and less necessary)
So, finally my beloved’s counsel to a panicking pregnancy, Hindu later life quietness, my mourning for a larger life lost, an island solitude, all come together. It is not that we shouldn’t have times when life enlarges, zooms. This is not a sin ‘n guilt trip. But those times of glittering power are no more than part of the weave. If we cannot move between the worlds, into the life of simple things, the detail of the table, cat or dog fur, the satisfaction of food we make, then the high places will crash into misery. Inevitably with an iron fate, for some time things change or fail; the body, the economy, others.
It is, as John said, all right to be boring (for a while says my inner rebel for I love the both).
ps. There is also Mick’s voice from House of the Goddess. He was older than me when I was being iconic. Like my father he said he admired how I was doing what I wanted, and as I did much later with my father I asked Mick what he wanted. He told me and I said urgently do it, do it. No he said. He had decided he preferred to keep the dream, not to risk it breaking, failing if he tested it in reality. He liked his dream to stay a dream, and he was a wise and happy man.