June 15, 2005

How terribly strange to be forty

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.

I am forty, and yet I do not know the colour of my eyes. I know now, know for a moment, as one knows the time when one has checked one's watch, and for the same reason. I have just checked. I had to check, and will have to check many times in the future, because I will never know.

I lived for nine years in Oxford in a small street, only eight houses, flanked on one side by a road called Freelands Road and on the other by Radcliffe Road. Which side was which, I never knew, and never could have known for sure. Because once I had been unsure for long enough, the fact of that uncertainty blotted out everything else: even when I thought I was absolutely sure, uncertainty took over like a failsafe mechanism and I had to check once more. My eyes are green. I know, because I checked. If and when I am ever fifty, seventy or ninety, I will, still, have to check.

My eyes are green. Tinged, to those same eyes, with a little brown and tinged again, to those same eyes, with a little too much sadness, with resignation and with tiredness. I have been told, occasionally, that I have distinctive eyes, not distinctive in colour but distinctive in the way I look at people. The nature of that distinctiveness has never been clear to me. I do not possess sufficient concentration for them to be piercing. Perhaps they look accusatory, and there are people I have looked at in that manner. But when I look at my eyes, they just look tired to me. Not exhausted so much as worn down, not worn out so much as worn away.

I am tired. Physically, I am tired. So are most of us, of course: most of us tired without ever expecting to be otherwise, and tired all the more because of that. I do not think that I look tired, though, not to anybody but myself. I do not think, for instance, that I look my forty years, My grey hairs are few enough, while my skin, although not youthful, does not yet betray me. But I am tired, all right.

I am tired of struggling. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of trying to be right. I am tired , perhaps most of all, of being right. Being right is such an overrated virtue. To be right is to achieve nothing. Nothing, except to frustrate and disappoint oneself: because by being right, one merely realises what could be achieved, and yet achieves it not. So I am tired, tired of the futility of struggle, of struggles, of all sorts of struggle. But tired, too, of so much else. Tired of being told, in one way or another, that if only I would look at things another way, they would look different. (As if, you know, one had not tried, had not spent most of the last forty years trying to do precisely that, had not become unspeakably tired of trying to do that.) I am tired of being told things. I am tired of other people. I am tired, I am worn down, I am worn out, I am tired. It is that, perhaps, of which my eyes may speak.

I do not struggle any more. Not for anything, or not for anything difficult. I did not give up, as such. I just found it impossible to be like that any longer, as one might lose a faculty, as one might lose the movement of a limb. Nothing dramatic. Not a collapse, not a breakdown, just an inability to do anything difficult any more.

Around three years ago I realised that I had changed, in that way. It was not a change from Hyde to Jekyll. Not a change in nature. But it was the loss of something that I always had before. Previously, though I might give up from time to time - and sometimes far too easily - my giving up was always temporary. Subsequently, it was different. No mas, as Duran said unexpectedly to Leonard. No mas. I do not want this any more. I do not want to struggle any more.

I say subsequently as if there were a cause. As if there were a moment on which everything turned. I do not really think there was. Something small did occur around that time, something about which I was unhappy, something unnecessary, something inevitable. But nothing you could single out and give the name of cause.

A few years ago I had a job interview in Wick and going up to John O'Groats afterwards, I pointed my camera at the Orkneys only to find that the lens was broken. Not shattered, not even split, but just slightly askew. I couldn't focus and I couldn't take a picture: and from that moment on, it never really worked again. But what caused it to go askew was nothing that happened at that moment - it was all the things that had led up to that. All the things that had worn it away. It took a long time to happen. It took, in the same way, a long, long time before I lost the faculty of defiance.

With it, when it went, went as well, most of my pleasure in people. Man delights not me. When I found that I had given up, then I found that I had given up on people also. Because what went was my capacity to sustain hurt of any kind, and of course, without that capacity, one cannot really function. Try and see it as many different ways as may be your will - it makes no difference. It is gone. It is gone, the faculty is lost, the missing limb is gone, and I would like it back.

Like the camera, I didn't snap. I didn't break. I didn't do anything dramatic. I just went slightly askew, a little out of step with the world, within it but not connecting with it, speaking a different language, passing right through it when I tried to touch. A little more askew than I had been before. I've always felt that I was, somehow, missing something, failing to understand what was going on, somehow set up differently from the world in which I live. As if it were a bad joke, as if it were an insoluble puzzle. "Poor George", says his wife Anne to Smiley: "life's a great puzzle to you, isn't it?". It is. It puzzles me, puzzles me to distraction, and I no longer find it possible to try and solve the puzzle.

So I am forty, and I am, I suppose, half, maybe even three-quarters a recluse. I speak to people, but I do not make conversation. I leave the house, but I do not go out. The mass of men, says Thoreau, lead lives of quiet desperation. But I am not desperate. I have simply let desperation slip away. I merely lead a life of quiet.

I do not really like it that way. I do not like myself that way. There is, inside, as there always is in everyone, that embryo, that potential, that possibility, that other-me. What a piece of work is a man! I could have been him. And, sometimes, perhaps, I have been him. And I could be him still. But I have given up trying to be him.

It shouldn't have been too much to ask. I have never asked for very much, not Things, not Career, not Money, not anything very much. I just wanted everything to be all right. But it was not. Ah, Jesus, I have spent my life against the odds, trying to counter the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will. But that will slipped away, slipped away for good around three years ago. So maybe it can be otherwise. Maybe it will be otherwise. But I cannot any longer try to make it otherwise.

There are still wonders to behold. On Monday, I flew over snow-capped mountains, and in the night, the sun refused to set. On Tuesday I stood up on a mountainside and looked at the mountains at one end of a fjord, and then my eyes traversed the fjord and looked at the mountains at the other. I stood upon that mountainside and began to read Song of Myself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.
But I see these things as a hermit watches Nature, and I sing for myself. For I am forty now and I see that I am tired.


At June 15, 2005 1:05 pm, Blogger JPD said...

I very much enjoy reading your posts. Having recently passed the same milestone I will say "happy" birthday, whatever that can mean for you. I hope you find the peace you crave and if possible can enjoy it without remorse or regret.

At June 15, 2005 1:31 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Happy Birthday to you Justin.

At June 15, 2005 1:35 pm, Blogger Fist said...

Happy Birthday.

Meeting up with me for chess+beer some time this summer, is that off the agenda now?

At June 15, 2005 3:43 pm, Blogger e. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At June 15, 2005 5:59 pm, Anonymous J said...

These people who stupidly tell you to look at things differently... perhaps what they are really saying is that what they too want for you is just for everything to be all right.

At June 15, 2005 7:45 pm, Blogger e. said...

Happy Birthday.

p.s. I removed my previous comment to edit out my name.

At June 16, 2005 10:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday (pah!)

Will you be in Tromso long enough for the game against Lyn Oslo (5pm, Saturday)?

Chris F

At June 17, 2005 9:59 pm, Blogger Martin said...

Happy birthday (a meaningless phrase, but the only one there is). Thanks for the card. I've always wanted to go to Norway, but ended up going in the other direction - story of my life!

At June 19, 2005 5:00 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Just stumbled across your site, and enjoyed this post. That is all.

At June 22, 2005 1:12 pm, Blogger Shuggy said...

Hey Justin - do you have any kids? If not, you ain't tired; you just think you are...

At June 29, 2005 5:30 pm, Anonymous martin togher said...

I turned 40 in April so I know exactly how you feel, things haven't turned out in a way I probably wanted when i was 20, but I no longer care. I think I've become a slacker, a few years ago I stopped caring about advancement in my career, so i just started temping, and I'm much happier without the worry of trying to advance.

good wishes to you, justin


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