Norwegian Fells © T. F. Lokken.

Panic Now

Let’s be a little pessimistic for a second.

Are you ‘young’ like me? When describing how old you are, do you leave the specifics in favour of ‘twenties’ or ‘thirties’? Do you have a career plan? ‘Enough’ of a plan? Maybe you have no plan at all. Whatever the case, allow me to lay prophecy for what remains of your life.

First of all; your life is going to seem laughably, disturbingly short. In the blinding flash that ensues from the moment you first open your eyes until you later close them for the last time, not only will you have experienced practically nil of what the universe has to offer but it will have passed more quickly than you ever could have imagined. In fact, you will probably have experienced less than a single percent of the world you could have known. You will have met only a fraction of the people whom you could have loved, made friends with, or hated. More than likely, you won’t have done the work that could have truly fulfilled you, or rested — if each day you finally could — as fitfully or resoratively as is possible. The experience, as a whole, will be chaotic, contradictory and — if you also happen to be an atheist — fundamentally meaningless. You will eat, drink, have sex and sleep. The rest is up to you. It will invariably be exciting and distressing in—at best—equal measure.

Let us now jump forward and imagine your life as it might appear in middle age. Some or all of the following things might start to occur. Parents — as vigorously alive as they seemed last month — rattle out their last breaths. Perhaps all at once. Perhaps with a striking — nay, conspiratorial — regularity that’s giving you just too little time to absorb one loss before the next comes.

Your spouse starts to looks less and less like a 22-year-old pool attendant every year, if indeed he did in the first place. So do you, as it happens, but that young man in the foyer at the hotel recently was just a little more curteous than you thought was natural, so you probably still have a chance. Right?

Your kids start trying on adult behaviours and traits, starting with the worst first. Maybe you wanted kids, maybe now you don’t. Maybe you wanted kids, maybe now you can’t. If you have kids, though, you live somewhere sensible and everybody is just like you, but not in a homely and reassuring way. Rather, it’s quite oppressive and you’re desperate to escape. Desperate to drive something throatier than a Prius.

To make matters worse, your work life — stable as it might be — is starting to stale. The diligence of your boss’ pedantry continues to astound at each performance review. You look across at him in meetings and imagine resolutely choking his last ‘assessment’ from him. It’d either be him or the thankless asshole over the cubicle wall.

Most present of all you woes, however, is the suffocating reality of death’s inexorable approach. It torments you day after day and mounts, year on year, until suddenly everything must be changed. Nothing, it seems, can remain as it is.

Our brief excursion — pessimistic as it admittedly may have seemed — was to a place that either of us could easily find ourselves and one from which many of our parents have already moved on, in their various ways. It was, as it happens, an almost word-for-word visualisation of Wikipedia’s archetype of a mid-life crisis. I hope that reading it will have made you feel roughly as wretched as I did writing it, because that’s the only way we stand a chance of avoiding it.

One of life’s most fundamental contradictions is that, although it will pass in an instant, sometimes it will surely feel unbearably drawn-out. It will seem so long, at times, that to spend half of it slogging away, as most of us do, at the drudgery of ‘normal people’ existence only to fall to the same fate as billions before us might be the worst of all crimes. Infuriatingly, days will pass like weeks while months pass like days, one after the other until we have had our lot.

Unfortunately, we can’t know how to avoid all the potentially dire timelines that might be in store, but we can be aware. We can perform a ‘pre-mortem’ of your ruined future self and make some course adjustments. We can’t plan for all eventualities, but one thing is certain: wherever you are on the voyage, if you’re not at least regularly enthused by the general state of your affairs you will die — as many before you — unfulfilled, the ship of ‘you’ scattered across the rocks of eternity. Unless, that is, you catch a vice grip at the helm.