Saturday, May 10, 2008

Coming of age, and doing so continually

"How does it feel to be seventy?", she asked me. It was only one day after I had started out on the eighth decade of my life. Two days earlier she had herself reached the age of ten. My brief answer to her question was: "Well, the same as yesterday, I presume." Yet, in a culture in which perceptions of quantity are profoundly conditioned by the long-term use of the decimal system, it is only natural that the passage from one decade of one's life to the next does not go unnoticed. When ten years earlier I turned sixty and now that I recently turned seventy, both occasions were celebrated by surprise parties at which friends and relatives felt they should express their thoughts and feelings to me, some of them clearly taking the opportunity to briefly reflect on the fact that they, too, were advancing surprisingly faster than they realized on their trajectory through life, and ultimately to its end.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines 'coming of age' as the "attainment of prominence, respectability, recognition, or maturity." The expression is normally used to indicate the stage of becoming an accepted member of the community of adults, someone who can be held accountable for what he or she does. Rites of passage of some sort are frequently associated with reaching this stage. However, from the perspective of the growing individual, coming of age never really stops and no particular passage can be universally seen as more relevant or important than another as the continually transforming power of learning impacts differentially on each of us depending on who we are as well as on the highly varied circumstances of our evolving existence.

For me, I recognize several stages in how I have perceived life as it evolved. Those stages are not very clearly linked to a particular age bracket. Rather, the next stage grows out of the previous one, but does so quite rapidly, it seems. Thus, there was an early period when my queries about what it meant to be dead (a relevant question when you want to know what it means to be alive) were met by my mother with the response that this wasn't an issue for me. Death was too far away to be a relevant concern. She would tell me when it would become relevant. Yet, I grew up in an environment where religious convictions held it that there would be life after death and it was thus perfectly natural for a small child like me, who is being told such stories, to be inquisitive about the transition from this life to what is supposed to follow. While my mother's answer did not satisfy my curiosity, I guess it led me to develop an initial perspective on life as something more or less indefinitely long.

However, as I grew up during the Second World War, death was never far away. In fact, I witnessed the disappearance of people in my environment from a very early age onward. It didn't take long for death to become a recognized fact of life. Yet, what I assume is the biology of growth of a young organism--even in the circumstances of deprivation and destruction that characterized those war years--seemed to prevent me from seeing death as a possible part of my own life. Death was what happened to others. My role in life was to live.

The thought that one does something with one's life came later, somewhere during adolescence. It's the time when life starts becoming defined by its pursuits. The prospect of death is there, but pursuits take precedence. Besides, much more still lies ahead than what came before. Moreover, what came before looks like eternity. The beginning of it has left no conscious trace in memory. One looks back to a point that vanishes in time. Comparatively, what lies ahead is an equally undefined trajectory the end of which is similarly marked by oblivion.

It roughly took me until the age of sixty before the thought that life has an end had become a pervasive element of my day-to-day experience and my thinking about the future--my future, the future that was still in my hands. A new phase in life took shape, one that centered on ideas like completion and reflection. At seventy I am still very much in the middle of that phase. I revisited and continue to revisit the things that were important to me in the past. I join them together, making them interact, allowing them to acquire new meaning in the present day context. I'm also thinking about how to leave and what to leave behind when time comes to go. Not that I think the end is near, but the reality of an end has become sufficiently manifest that I feel this phase in life is also characterized by urgency. Particularly, I am trying to discover ways to let my personal learning journey become an integrated part of the learning that others, who will survive me, will then still engage in for some time. Hopefully they will take similar care for ensuring the sustainability of the learning ecology as generation upon generation of humans partakes in it.

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