I’ve noticed something about aging over the years. An interesting thing about my profession (especially in my case, since I’ve been at the same department for 19 years) is that you’re linked to people for a long time, including people in your age cohort and people who are different ages as well. So you get a long string of observations of a variety of people. Mostly, you see their professional side, but you also gain some insight into their personal lives. It’s something that I think everyone learns, but it’s often implicit, or at least unsaid: after awhile, people give up.
Usually, when I meet someone my age (around 50), I can’t believe how fucking horrible they look. Fat, haggard, dull. Let’s face it, the typical 50 year old person looks like shit. What do they do with their lives? Work takes up some time, but apart from that, they eat crap, watch crap on tv, socialize with their peers (which is another form of eating crap). Thinking, to the extent it’s done, is in the form of rationalization. Here’s an article about a guy who ate red meat and smoked until he died at age 90, so I can abuse my body in good conscience. A friend of mine says immigrants tend to be criminals, so I’m justified in resenting all these foreigners taking jobs from white people. The Republican party says global warming is a hoax, so I can feel good about driving my gigantic pickup truck… Better to watch some sports on the boob tube or have another Coors and not worry about things too much.
No need to get off my ass, because all my friends and neighbors look like crap too. It’s sort of a form of collusion, I think. We all eat dessert and have a few extra drinks to catch a buzz in the evening. Sure, it’s getting harder to get up off the couch, as my belly’s getting big and my muscles soft, but everyone else is in the same boat. Sure, the wife is kind of gross, but so am I, so we’ll just turn off the light and think about other people when we have sex.
Here’s the thing: it’s inevitable. Unless you die in an accident, you will give up. Everyone does at some point. And here’s the other thing: it’s rational! Taking care of yourself (what you eat, exercise, using your brain) is a form of investment, and an investment is only worth the cost if the payoff is big enough. As you get older, you’re closer to death, so there’s an upper bound on the size of that payoff. If you absolutely know you’re going to die tomorrow, it doesn’t make sense to forego dessert today. As a good friend would put it, you might as well jerk off until your dick falls off.
And not only does our time horizon shrink as we get older (so the stream of payoffs from current investment is getting shorter), the investment itself becomes more costly. Exercising is tougher when you’re older. You’re more likely to get injured, and recovery times get longer, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to get off the couch.
What it boils down to, really, is mortality. When we (or most of us, at least) are young, we don’t think about it. As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand. It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize that there’s nothing you can do. You’re going under. Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand, you’re not going to start knitting a sweater. About the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.
I respect people who try not to give up, and I’ve been one of them. But those people are starting to remind me of the Black Knight battling the Knights of Ni:
A last comment: the above ramblings stem not just from my observations of other people, but introspection. I can sense that the costs of investment are increasing. I know how my father looked when he died, and that’s ahead of me in roughly thirty years, which is not that long. Should I spend my free time learning new mathematical techniques to open up new possibilities for my research, or should I listen to music, have a drink, and add an article to my blog?