When young people get married, I think many of them choose their partners based on the idea that they’ve found someone they want to spend the rest of their lives with. And that’s how they see their lives: as one thing, one big thing, that may have ups and downs but will always be essentially what they’re living now. When old people get married, or remarried, they have a different idea.
I think they tend to marry someone who they can enjoy each day with. They don’t think about the sweep of their future lives together, maybe because so much of their life has passed. But perhaps it’s also because they find more meaning in living day to day than in thinking about their future.
This train of thought was spurred by a book I’m reading: The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, which I pledged to read 40 years ago when I first saw my Mom’s copy on the shelf. I read slow and infrequently, so getting through this 700 page Pulitzer winer has been a challenge. As with all long, obscure books (Faulkner, Joyce, Heller) I ask myself “If it’s so difficult to read this, why am I bothering?”
With some books, like a Stephen King thriller, you find out what they’re about and then you read them. With a book like The Magic Mountain, it’s exactly the opposite. You read them, and your struggle with the content generates the meaning.
This contrast between discovering a book which is “about something” and discovering “what a book is about” is very important. It’s a part of the difference between being young and being old. And each perspective is valuable, regardless of your age.
When I was young, I found it necessary to my survival to decide what my life was “about,” to have something to guide me, a meaning, a role, an identity, even a marriage. This helped me through very difficult times. While many of my friends didn’t need that kind of a guiding light, some of them without that kind of tether were easily swept into disruptive temptations that risked damage to their futures.
As I get older, I’m finding it’s helpful to let go of things. Many older people see that the footprints leading up to the present went in a very different direction than they wanted them to, and there’s no fighting it now, is there? I think the older people that are the least happy (and the ones that make everyone else miserable) are the ones that are trying to hold onto ideas about themselves and their world that are really no longer supportable.
In jazz (and to some extent, all music) you can see both at the same time. Before you start, you can have an idea about what you want to say by selecting a particular tune to play on. At the same time, the meaning of the music can only be expressed by playing it because it’s never the same twice.
Life must be understood backwards, as the philosopher Kierkegaard reminds us, even as we live it forwards. He implores us to keep both types of experience in mind. As I get older, I’m finding it easier to live day to day, but harder to believe in the dreams that got me here, and the truth is that I need both, the way I always needed both.
Reading books like The Magic Mountain can give me a chance to work through these kinds of struggles in a safe way. In fact, I suspect that may be one of the things the book is about. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished!
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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books. Fantasy author, educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life. To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net