Saturday, October 11, 2014

Evolution, Middlesex, and Uncle Frank

If you’ve read my posts, you might have noticed a fixation about the ‘stickiness’ of negativity. I feel like I hold onto the bad stuff more than I hold onto the good stuff. In fact, I used to define myself as a hopelessly ‘realistic’ until I was having a few beers with a buddy at a conference.  I was talking about my mom’s funeral, and I remarked how it was hard to imagine anyone being more jaded than me. He gave me an incredulous look and responded, “What? You’re crazy! You’re the most positive person I know!”

I was so stunned at first that I didn’t even argue, but it made me rethink things. Made me get out of my own skin and really start listening to what people were saying, to see how often bitterness broiled beneath a veneer of happiness. It startled me to really see the baggage people were carrying as they aged. I just missed it all, I guess, while I was celebrating my own cynicism. The little laugh when another wedding’s announced. The awkward pause when talking about a daughter out west. But it left me with another bigger question: Is there something ‘natural’ about reverse-evolving into a curmudgeon? I can’t help but feel like the answer is “Yes.”

That may not be a bad thing. I finished reading Middlesex about a year ago, and one line from the book really stuck with me: “Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.” On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to 0. In an evolutionary sense, it’s only natural to welcome that next big step when things start to fall apart, right?

The corollary to the "you're bitter when you're old" theorem is "you're sweet when you're young"

To be honest, thinking about the quote really made me feel better about how things were with my parents as they moved on. I feel like I spent a lot of time trying (and failing) to make them happier as their health started to deteriorate. They resisted, and seemed to embrace all the negativity in a way that left me feeling utterly hopeless; but at the ends of ends, there wasn’t regret or fear, just a readiness that maybe I wasn’t willing to accept, but they certainly were.

Now, the complication for me relates to a quote from A Game of Thrones: “Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.” If you buy that there’s something hardwired into us such that we’re more willing to move on, what are the implications of modern existence where you don’t really need to be able to kill bears to survive? Have you ever seen the “Uncle Frank Tribute” from Jimmy Kimmel Live? At some point, Uncle Frank remarks, “I’ve done more in these years, fun-wise, than I’ve ever done in my life.” He was in his 70s when he made that remark, and I’m sure it’s not exaggeration. There are possibilities in old age now that didn't exist in the past, possibilities to make the world a better place not just for our friends and relatives, but society as a whole. Will we, as a species, rewire to focus on the joys of living?

Maybe Uncle Frank went reluctantly, terrified and screaming, as he moved on to other things. I doubt it. Was he an exception to a rule? I’m at that age where my friends’ parents are all ‘being difficult’ as they break down physically. Do I tell them that it’s only natural, or do I try to convince them to fight?

Uncle Frank was pretty buff in his 70s
 Food for further thought. In the meantime, checkout my website!