Saturday, August 31, 2013

Along for the Ride

Riding in the back seat of a car recently, I was enjoying the ride and the lack of responsibility. My daughter, Shirley, was driving and involved in a lively conversation with my wife, Judith. Not driving used to be a luxury for me, but in recent years it has become pretty much the norm. Younger people have taken over many aspects of my life. Where we go and when, what we eat and where we will have dinner, which movie we’ll see—all these decisions are often made by others, leaving me free to be simply along for the ride.

My age has a lot to do with that. I no longer have to be the one in charge, the one who takes responsibility for everyone else, the one who deals with the frequent little crises of life. More importantly, it’s because I don’t hear much of the conversations around me. Hearing aids help only in the best of circumstances when the ambient noise level is low and people are near me and speaking clearly. When I have to, I can ask people to speak up or “say that again” or otherwise consider my limitations when they are speaking. But when I’m in a group, I often find that I can’t keep up with the conversation and I’m reluctant to interfere with the flow.

Lately I’m aware that my capacity to integrate experiences is declining. I’m told that at my age I should expect the failure of synapses in my brain—my mind is functioning less, in spite of all my efforts to keep it active. I don’t understand as quickly. Listening to others as they talk, especially young people, I simply can’t as easily follow them. I cannot multi-task; my mind cannot accommodate multiple tasks and events. I’m much more easily distracted by outside noise, for example, especially other conversations in the environment. More and more, I find I’m simply dropping out of participating and understanding what’s going on around me.

Neurologists tell us that the vast proportion of activity of our minds is unconscious. We’ve always known this to some extent: “Why did I say that?” is a common observation. Experiments show that, for example, when we decide to move our hand from here to there, before we’re conscious of the intention, our bodies have already begun the movement. Conscious awareness seems to be merely one effect of processes going on in our minds, rather than the stimulus of behavior. It’s like we’re watching a delayed display on a monitor of what we do.

And that doesn’t even consider the automatic processes at work in our bodies—our digestive system, our very heart beat, the healing of minor skin damage or bone fractures. There’s no director at work handling all those processes, no little man pushing buttons and pulling levers to make our bodies do what they do. We have an erroneous idea that we’re in charge. Our conscious control of what our bodies do is mostly illusion. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say we’re only “along for the ride” of our lives, but it’s way less exaggeration than we tend to think.

In the past century (about), our society has become aware of our part in some of the changes in our climate. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is contributing to the warming of our planet. We can certainly spoil our environment for ourselves and other living creatures. But it’s the height of hubris to think that we can destroy Earth. It was here millions of years before we appeared, and no doubt it will be here millions of years after we humans are gone. To think that humanity will at some point in the future simply not exist is disconcerting, but it’s likely. We’re along for the ride on this planet.

Just as true is the inevitability that I will at some moment soon no longer exist. Death has always been difficult for people in some cultures to think about. The closer I get to that darkness, the simpler it seems. But it means that I have to learn to let go of desire. I need to get used to being only “along for the ride.” The “ride of a lifetime” is literally true.

In some ways I’m getting used to being with people and hearing their voices without understanding much of what they are saying. I wish sometimes, though, that I could participate more in conversations and decision-making that involve me. I also wish I had the resources to participate more in the world around me. I think of Beethoven, for example, who determinedly kept going in spite of his deafness, and kept giving what he had to the world. Being simply along for the ride, when I have a choice, seems like dropping out. I’m not ready to do that yet.

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