And that something is, well, age.
In your 50s (where she and I are) or 60s (which aren’t far around the corner for me), you know from actuarial tables and you feel in your bones that you have less time to recover from and redeem false steps. You have fewer opportunities for do-overs. You also understand, from experience, the wages of mistakes: how they can cling to you for years and even reverberate across decades. That lesson comes only from having been alive a good long while, and it’s not an easy one to shake.
A passage of Joan Didion’s frequently comes back to me. It’s from “Goodbye to All That,” the final essay in her “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection, and while she’s describing her early days in, and onetime romance with, New York City, her true subject is the exhilaration and then fading of youth. “I knew that it would cost something,” she writes of her heady time there, “but when you are 22 or 23, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance and be able to pay whatever it costs.”
“Nothing was irrevocable,” she adds, but a few pages — and five years — later, she changes her tune, realizing, after an accretion of years, that “some things are irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
That, I told my friend, is perhaps what had happened to the swagger of her youth. She had traded it for wisdom, which has considerably less fizz. Recklessness had yielded to wariness, fireworks to mood lighting. And there was as much gain as loss in that.
Neither she nor I had or has stopped taking chances. The very prompt for our conversation was the leaps we’d just taken, the changes to which we’d committed. Age doesn’t eliminate those: It just keeps your eyes wide open and your expectations in check.
If I erred in choosing the path I’m now on, I will pay a price, and I won’t recover the time and energy invested in my error. But time has taught me something else as well: There’s an even steeper tariff on indecision, which freezes you in place, so that you’re not on any path at all. In that situation, you’ve squandered more than time and energy. You’ve squandered feeling. You’ve surrendered the journey itself.
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