Someone recently asked me what my greatest fear is. I assumed they wanted a real answer.
I have reached the point in my life where I finally understand the definition of wisdom and exactly why it is that I have none. I used to think wisdom could be simulated with empathy—that by placing myself in someone else’s shoes, I could at least have some broader understanding of the complex lives of others. I was wrong about that, as with so many other things.
In the context of aging, I used to think I understood the way old people view their lives—a sort of bittersweet combination of memory and acceptance of the unknown to come. This is probably not inaccurate for many people, but even if it’s a perfect description, the simple truth is that I have never been old and therefore can never even attempt to understand how growing old actually feels. I have felt bittersweetness, melancholia and all of these pertinent emotions, yet until I have been alive for long enough I will never understand them in the context of aging and of being old. Wisdom is simply having lived, and I haven’t lived for all that long.
That being said, there are now years of my “adult” life behind me, sentient years, years since the beginning of my life ended—enough time to realize that my mind doesn’t age. It matures, sure, but it doesn’t age; not like my body does. Though I can’t be certain, it is my best guess that my mind/spirit/inner-voice/self/whatever the hell is going on in here will continue not to age—that my metaphysical self will always be roughly the same as it is right now. As an old man, I will still be me, this kid who has no idea what’s going on just trying to make things matter for himself. That means one day, the me of the present will be staring death in the face. I wonder how I’ll feel.
But it isn’t just me; this is how it is with everyone. Every elderly person is just a young person whose body has aged around them. Everyone who is in charge, those who I looked up to when I was a kid, and those who, even until recently, I assumed had things at least somewhat figured out—parents, teachers, celebrities and public figures—they’re all exactly as un-magical as I am. They are not gods. They don’t have access to the “answers” I feel like I’m searching for as I age.
In my childhood, I subconsciously deified these people. This deification is what separates childhood from adulthood. I now recognize the omnipresent sense of security I felt as a kid in knowing that adults were in charge for a reason, without ever knowing—or caring, for that matter—why. That’s why I look back with such fondness. There was nothing to worry about then. All the systems of the world—education, politics, consumption of entertainment—were ingrained within me long before I reached an age where I could question them, and now that I am at an age where I question them, I am far too used to this life to challenge it.
What I have discovered is that so many of these systems, these societal routines in which I willingly participate, are as nonexistent as the gods of childhood. There is no one in control behind the scenes; with that realization, it becomes disturbingly absurd how much time I spend in service of systems like social norms, law, and religion among others. While they seem so natural and important on a day to day basis, every now and then I become aware of just how confusingly and arbitrarily pervasive they all are. Despite how they are typically understood, in reality they are not necessary or intrinsic to living. They are relatively nonexistent.
When I say nonexistent, I mean that every facet of every one of these systems was devised and implemented by someone—young or old, thoughtful or ignorant. Someone who lived a childhood and grew out of it—someone with wisdom maybe, but more importantly, someone who wasn’t old. Because no one is old on the inside. Every idea, every piece of legislation, every invention, every work of art was envisioned and created by someone like me: a person, not a god, not God. All created by me-like beings, and that’s all there is.
I live every day for deified systems that only have meaning because I was taught to give them meaning in my childhood. This meaning is only really ever examined or struck down in a brief moment of objectivity, under the influence of a short-winded epiphany or a psychedelic.
It’s scary to realize that I will never find the “answer” to these problems. I will age and unavoidably grow wiser, as we all must, but I won’t age, at least not in the way I used to think I would. When I have no more time to question the existence of some greater purpose, I will certainly be no closer to finding out if there is one—it’ll still be me behind those weary eyes and wrinkles. A kid with no answers, trying to make things matter for himself. A father perhaps, a grandfather even, but still just the son from way back when. It seems kind of hopeless now, and there is so much work to be done to find meaning for myself out of this life. I know how I feel now. I can only wonder how I’ll feel at the end.
The battle now is to figure out if it’s really possible to make things mean something. David Foster Wallace said, “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide.” But he killed himself three years later. I’m left wondering why he couldn’t make it matter, and whether I will succeed in doing so.
Someone asked me what my greatest fear is. I assumed they wanted a real answer.
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Jaxson Floberg is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Mondays.