Does Life Have a Plot?

The title of this blog – “When I Come to Be Old” – comes from a list of resolutions that Jonathan Swift compiled as a young man about how he would behave in his old age. It is a litany of the things he finds annoying about the older people around him and includes the reminder not to “tell the same story over and over.”  We old people tend to tell stories to others and to ourselves.  We are trying to make sense of our lives.  Boring those around us with repetitive stories is definitely to be avoided, but is trying to make stories out of our lives a good thing or a bad thing?

We want to make sense of things.  We want to believe that things happen for a reason.  Whole religions are built out of this.  When we wonder why “the wicked prosper,” Christianity moves the end of the story to eternal life.  Buddhism and Hinduism and other religions of karma and reincarnation assure us that it all works itself out over many lifetimes. Whether we believe this or not, however, we want things to make sense now.  We want to be able to read the stories of our lives to a satisfying conclusion.  So we make the past into a story.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.  The philosopher Galen Strawson thinks that our culture encourages people to construct continuous narratives of their lives over time, while life might be better understood as “episodic.”  Things happen and then other things happen.  Lives do not necessarily make sense.  Freud gave us the idea that everything was rooted in our childhoods; if we could just follow the thread we would understand.  Maybe.  But there are random events like illnesses and weather and which roommate you were paired with as a college freshman.

In Swift’s time, it was common to talk about life in seven years segments.  Swift’s mentor, Sir William Temple (one of the old men Swift is talking about in his resolutions no doubt), wrote that “mind and his thoughts change every seven years, as well as his strength and his features.”  The seventh year (7,14, 21…63, 70) was seen as “climacterical” and having significance as a turning point.  (Climacteric is now a term we use synonymously with menopause, but that is just one kind of change.)  This theory assumes definite differences between your old self and your new self.  And surely, none of us can understand all of the decisions we made forty or fifty years ago.  And yet we try to connect the dots.

But life is not entirely in our control (another lesson we might not learn until old age), and bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason – and vice versa. The Bible contains the most significant story of a man whose life does not make sense – Job.  The last chapter of the Book of Job (where he gets new riches and new children) is thought to have been tacked on at some later date to make us all feel better.  Mostly it makes us wonder, does God really think children are replaceable?

We want it all to make sense.  In some cases it seems to for a while.  People who work hard do well – but not always.  Good parents have good children – but not always.  Love begets love – but not always. As we get old and look back on our lives – what holds it all together?  What part of my eight-year-old self endures (besides some unreliable memories)?

Autobiographies written in old age reinforce the cause-and-effect route.  Benjamin Franklin wants to convince you that he plotted out his life and developed his character according to a set of guidelines which he developed as a young man and is hoping to pass along to his poor son.  On the other hand, Penelope Lively entitles her memoir Making It Up, and by following the forking threads of decisions she made and things that happened to her, makes it clear that it could have gone another way.

Galen Strawson thinks the human population is divided into diachronics (those who see life as a continuous narrative) and episodics (those who remember events but do not forge a link). He intimates that the latter have an easier time seeing each day as a new beginning.  One might think of the Greek differentiation of time as chronos (linear calendar/clock time) or kairos (special experiences outside of time). Old age is a time for episodic reminiscing, which is often followed by an attempt to make sense of the episodic sequence.  Maybe this is a fool’s errand.  Surely it is beyond our ability.  Among the questions the Buddha said were “inconceivables” and should be “put aside” were questions as to how karma worked. 

So, when you sit down to write those memoirs or family histories, please consider that your life is not a novel.  You do not need to find a plot (or to invent one).  A number of my short stories are about people who read the wrong narrative into things (try “The More Loving One”).  But maybe reading any narrative into things should only be done provisionally.

Old Karma, Instant Karma

I have heard the word karma tossed around a lot lately. There is a subtle thread that postulates that humanity is reaping what it has sown in terms of overpopulation, globalization, and racial inequities. Buddhists will tell you that there are many kinds of karma. I am partial to John Lennon’s kind of karma – but we’ll come back to that.

Karma literally means “action,” it is what we do or think. Because the world seems to work on a cause and effect basis, what we do has consequences. This is the good news and the bad news. It means we can get ourselves into trouble, but it also means we can get ourselves out of trouble. As older people, most of us are well experienced with this concept. The sins of our youth might still haunt us, but most of us have learned some lessons, overcome some of the consequences of our misjudgments, and carried on. Maybe not entirely, though. Cicero continually reminds us that a well-spent youth is the “best armor of old age,” but Cicero is not right about everything. Erasmus, on the other hand, quotes a common medieval proverb that a “young saint makes an old devil” and vice-versa. In any case, the good news about karma, even if you do not believe in multiple lifetimes in which to reap the consequences, is that as long as we can act, we can change our karma. And, I believe, this is even true on an individual daily basis and collectively over the long term.

None of this is to say that bad things (or good things) cannot happen to undeserving people; earthquakes and rainbows are indiscriminate as far as I can tell. And I am not saying we could even figure out the ramifications of our past or present actions very accurately – even the Buddha said such an effort would drive one to madness. But it would also be madness to think that our actions have no consequences. It is a kind of madness that we apparently have collectively, and the earth and its creatures are suffering for it.

Again, old people know all about this. We know it with our bodies – we are dealing now with the sins of our youth when we got too much sun, smoked, did drugs, or didn’t eat well or take good care of our teeth. And we know it in our hearts. It often occurs to me that I have far clearer memories of my mistakes than I do of my successes, that I can summon up the details of bad times more easily than I can remember the good ones. Karma.

You might remember one of Lennon’s last creations – “Instant Karma.” Here are the chorus and some of the lyrics:

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Every one, come on

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Every one you meet

This is the karma of conscience. Things I did, things I didn’t do (and should have); the guilt, shame, and remorse of such things don’t wait for another lifetime. They are, as Lennon says, instant. These pangs don’t disappear instantly, however. In the little book on conscience by Paul Strohm that I have been reading (highly recommended), there is talk about the “black book of conscience” that we must carry with us to present to the “Final Judge.” Oh boy.

What we’ve done or not done, where we come from, what we’ve thought, has repercussions throughout our life. Of course, we cannot change the past, and yet… one spends a lot of time with regrets and might remember Yeats words about remorse:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. (“Dialogue of Self and Soul”)

May it be so! But how to “cast out remorse”? And do we always want to?

But here’s the thing – I have remorse that I spent too much time in the sun, didn’t brush my teeth enough, didn’t drink enough milk. But I don’t spend any time berating myself about it – I just get a good dermatologist, a decent dentist, and take my Prolia shots for osteoporosis without complaint. So far, however, there have been no such “remedies” for the bad karma we have inflicted on the earth and its creatures. Covid and the Black Lives Matter have reminded me of this. And I know remorse won’t help unless it is fueling action (new karma) and a new heart (instant karma).

The story this week, “The Widow’s Dream,” is not so much about karma within one woman’s lifetime, as about how the past can cripple us if we allow it to. Let it not be so.