As far as I can remember, ‘the future’ – when I was younger – was so real a prospect that I never thought too much about it. It was the next thing that demanded my attention – my work, the needs of my family, some campaign I was involved in, thinking about how we would spend our holidays, whether it was time to think about changing the car, how long I should stay in my present appointment and what might be the next one. My horizons defined themselves and, apart from the occasional dread of sudden illness or death or a family crises waiting to be resolved, they were sufficiently certain and sufficiently far away, to be left to themselves. It was now that mattered most. At least that’s how I remember the middle years of my life.
It’s rather different now that I am older (correction: now that I am old). The future consists of what remains to be done and how long it will be before I die. It’s not a morbid thought but just a different perspective, a realistic one. When I look at the obituaries in our morning newspaper, the first thing I notice is how many years the deceased lived – was it more or less than will be true for me? To be living in the years of my own end-time is quite a different experience and one that I am slowly coming to terms with.
There are unlikely to be any more wild(ish) holidays abroad, not so many new experiences of any sort, though many old ones -and dear ones- to cherish. Nagging illnesses and mental deterioration are unlikely to improve, the challenge is to cope with both in as positive a way as possible, not to anticipate that they will go away, nor that they will be the sum of my health problems – there may be others lurking in the background.
These are the things that people don’t talk about and perhaps its only people who are inclined to be pessimistic like me who think about such things and contemplate this specifically limited future.
When people say ‘how are you?’ they do so out of genuine kindness, but not with the expectation of hearing the truth. They want to be reassured that despite whatever evidence you may proffer them, basically you are ‘alright’. To halt the traffic of goodwill by stopping and telling your kind questioner your various tales of woe is no fun for anyone. To talk about limited horizons, even less so. So, cautioned by the prospect of creating an embarrassed silence, mostly we don’t, cherishing what is and not bothering oneself or anyone else about what shall be.
But as the future is foreshortened (there’s not going to be much of it!), the past becomes ever richer. I have these flashbacks of memory, incidents, moments, people, events often triggered off by some recollection linked to what is happening now.
I think about my beginnings, my parents and what sort of people they were, the culture that formed me, how I found my way from school to work, National Service, friends and colleagues, particular experiences, friendships made and sometimes lost, my sense of vocation which was so important to me that it defined who I was to myself, let alone how I came across to others; and my dear family who are so precious: their future so much more important to me than my own.
I have no intention of being the old man in a corner ruminating over the past, but the breadth of life – O.K. some of it was wasted or not taken seriously enough and there have been many mistakes –is contemporised as I reflect on the years, and am grateful for them.