I learn by going where I have to go

by Terry Oliver on June 1, 2010

Living in the 3rd Age raises a lot of challenges which I hadn’t expected to face. I thought it would be a time of reflection and contemplation, reading and philosophising with old friends. But not so. Every day seems to bring fresh demands on my time, attention and energy. The times they are a-changing.

Having grown up during the era of Vietnam war protests, anti-nuclear ban the bomb demos, civil rights marches and  equal rights battles, I figured that my activist period was behind me. That I would move into the sunlit uplands of my later years that I had read so much about as a young man. But not so. It seems the times are still a-changing.

The struggles that were so important during the period of the 60s and 70s have been supplanted by new more pressing demands on my attention during my own 60s and 70s. The political activism of my youth and mid-life, my first and second Ages, has morphed into the green activism of my 3rd Age.

And there is a troubling difference. Although those early struggles seemed frightening and potentially life-destroying if we lost the battles, we never really believed we would fail. In the darkest, bleakest moments of the Vietnam war and  even peering into the abyss of the Cuban missile crisis, we retained some threads of hope. Holding hands with the women of Greenham Common as we circled the nuclear airbase, it was impossible to believe we would not ultimately triumph. But not so today.

Today I engage in the new green struggles for the planet – the twin threats of Peak Oil and Climate Change with a sense of foreboding I don’t recall from the 60s and 70s. Is the difference just my age? The idealism of youth versus the skepticism of old age? What has brought about that sea change from optimism to pessimism? A lifetime’s accumulation of experience, perhaps? The sinking feeling that this time we’ve gone too far, past the ‘tipping points’ the scientists continually warn us of.

Am I alone in feeling like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner buttonholing the wedding guests, fixing them with my glittering eye, pointing in horror at the approaching cliff edge? But the wedding guests do not want to hear bad news, for there’s a party going on, there is still more fun to be had with plenty left over for our children to have their turn.

On more days than I care to admit to, I am sorely tempted to rejoin the party. What perverse instinct always puts me on the outside looking in – pointing the finger, forever the party-pooper. But although I cannot bring myself to rejoin the party, I can at least discern a possible alternative to joining the doom crowd.

The little wall-eyed French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre seems an unlikely person to pin my hopes on but I have always secretly admired his courage in facing up to his awful truth. It is true, he said, that life is meaningless. But we must act as if it had meaning. In other words, we must create our own meaning. In the face of the abyss he declared himself an optimist – every day making new meaning out of life.

I admit it’s not much to hold onto as I enter my 75th year, my three-quarter century mark, but you have to start somewhere. As the poet Theodore Roethke said, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

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