40, 41: The Decade of Doubling Down
41 days ago, I turned 40.
I am reminded of a line from Dune, one of the italicized opening koans that besot the book. It reads “Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.” This, of course, is nonsense, but I read Dune at a young age and overvalue it still to this day.
There are, perhaps, many things that I overvalue. Kurt Vonnegut is a prime example, and his novel Mother Night is a glass gem of hyperinflation in the pewter crown of his overvaluation. In it he says, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And that sentiment dovetails nicely with a new piece of popular literature that I am in the process of thinking too much of: Game of Thrones. In a recent episode, a sage is counseling an erring young man (who has already murdered and burned two innocent children and is about to set a city ablaze), saying “You are not the man you are pretending to be,” and his pupil replies “It’s too late for me to pretend to be anything else.”
At 40, there are many things that I feel I’m still pretending to be, but not so much because there’s something real that I’m not being, nor because I’m not really any (or all) of the roles I inhabit. Being an abba, as an example, feels less strange now than it did five years ago. Rather, I am more acutely aware of all the roles that are transitory in my life, even the ones that I will ostensible play until the curtain abruptly descends and my eyes will know only darkness.
The abba my children need now will little resemble the abba they will need in ten, to say nothing of 20 or 30 years. And I would no more be able to incarnate this abba than they would be nourished by it. This is how we all walk through our lives, metamorphosing more thoroughly than caterpillars into butterflies, and far more frequently. And 40 seems like one of those ages where we look at the discarded chrysalises of our past identities and consider the trajectory of our flight, now (we hope) still approaching its apex.
Something else I overvalued: Machines of Loving Grace.
And another: Milan Kundera. In his book, Immortality, one idea he explores is that human gestures are what are real and enduring, and that as we embody them, they give us life, if only for a moment, by allowing us to participate in their existence. He flips the idea of “going through the motions” around, so that the motions actually go through us, and it is only in our execution of them that we are really fully alive to the world.
And that is the one thing, I think, that I do not overvalue, though I hold it in the highest esteem. “This is the world to love, there is no other.” So writes Stephen Dobyns, and I cannot praise this line enough, but it must be coupled with Kalil Gibran, who says of children: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts.”
Taken together, we could be lead to understand that thoughts wink in an out of existence, each child with his or her own, like an art collection that we use to remind us of who we are, like a set of books that we overvalue and in the end do not avail us. And we may also understand that love, which we receive from our parents and pass to our children, love is the house that holds our art. Love is the spring from which gestures arise. Love is that world, and there is no other.
One of the images I come back to often was first pounded into my head in a philosophy class at FSU: that of a hammer that has had both its head and its handle replaced. The professor asked: if you buy a hammer and after one year, you replace the head, is it the same hammer? What if you replace the body the next year, is it still the same hammer? Heraclitus, of course, argues that you can never step into the same hammer twice, but that doesn't make a dime’s worth of difference when you’re hammering a nine-penny nail, now, does it?
Of course, two things are true: the hammer at one end of the arm is no more the same than the person at the other end of the arm, because—if we are lucky—we are as scrupulous at keeping our own head as up-to-date as that of our hammers. What connects the hammer to itself throughout its life is its singularity of purpose and custody. Let me drive this point home another way.
Hammers are always doubling down on their hammerness. And that’s how I am approaching my 40s: doubling down. I will double down on all those things that I overvalue, such as quoting works that I overvalue. Richard McCann once summed up my prose style by saying that if I had written Moby Dick, the first lines would have read “There are those who, when the call me, will utter the name “Ishmael,” and should you do the same, I will answer, whether I am home or, as now, away.”
There’s another word for “doubling down,” and it is “devotion.” There’s more to that word, though: it is a word my own abba understands and into which he breathes more life than I can. There’s more here, I tell you. But I’ve told you that before. This year, I’m doubling down on more.
My hour is up; thanks for playing along.