Is Taking Risks In The Second Half A Good Game Plan For Life?

Posted at 19:00pm on 13th October 2008

OLD AGE? YOU GOTTA LAUGH, BEFORE YOU DIE

Do you ever feel that there are times in your life when your body is trying to convince you that it’s closer to lights out than it is to reveille? You don’t, actually, have to be in your dotage to feel like this. Neither do the symptoms have to be the subject of tragedy. It’s all a matter of perception.

That seems to be the message of David Lodge’s latest novel Deaf Sentence, in which the protagonist, a sixty-something year old, is losing his hearing. As Michiko Kakutani’s review in yesterday’s New York Times reminds us, there is tragedy: “deafness is a kind of death — a symptom of mortality, a constant, embarrassing reminder of his aging body and diminishing hopes.” But there is also, humour – as Desmond, the main character in the book, observes, “deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic.”

CUTTING A COMIC FIGURE

Ageing has always been a subject for wit and satire, from the pathos and revulsion evoked by Steptoe’s dad in Steptoe and Son; to the ‘aha!’ moments of identification portrayed by Victor Meldrew’s grumpy old man in One Foot In The Grave; and the downright funny in so many of Julie Walter’s comic roles.

The comedic aspects of old-age can be brought on at any time of life by a simple change in circumstances. So it was that I tottered forth, one evening last week – my first outing since I went down with my female flu a fortnight ago. I was heavily dosed! Paracetamol to relieve the pain of having turned my ankle when larking around with my four-year-old twin grandchildren. A non-drowsy cough mixture, in an attempt to straight-jacket the efforts of my lungs to eject themselves from my chest. And my usual glucosamine and condroitin to deal with an ongoing, familial, arthritis of the knee. Limping and spluttering, I was aware that I cut a comic figure.

We were taking friends to the university to hear Lyndon Bowring speak on the work being carried out by CARE – an organisation which, among other things, lobbies the British Parliament on such controversial issues as bioethics (human cloning, euthanasia etc.); human trafficking; and children’s rights. As I hobbled from the car park to the building in which the reception was to take place, I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how rapidly a common cold and a minor injury could turn you into feeling and resembling an old woman.

IN EXTRA TIME

There were younger people in the audience, but the majority of us were in what Lyndon telling called ‘the second half’ of our lives. I was the wrong age to have been part of the student movement of the sixties, for whom marching and protesting were a normal part of life. And I couldn’t help thinking that that energy and enthusiasm to influence and correct the wrongs of the day seemed, largely, to have been wrung out of today’s youngsters by the mangle of the concept that there’s “no such thing as society”. But Lyndon’s message seemed to be that we were to rouse ourselves from the apathy into which he obviously feared we had sunk. He was intent on enthusing us with renewed energy and zeal.

HALF TIME

Lyndon is a Welshman, so naturally much of the terminology he used was rugby inspired! Struggling to suppress my cough, ankle and knee pain, it was all a little over my drug-filled head, but the gist of it was this. Speaking of the work of CARE, he told us of his own sense of having played the first half of the game with vim and vigour. And then having gone into the changing room and had a mid-life crisis. Everything he’d been playing for might have appeared to be unattainable. The game of life – socially and politically – had deteriorated to such an extent that it seemed to be beyond redemption. A sense of helplessness threatened to pervade everything he’d worked for.

SECOND HALF STRATEGY

And then came a meeting with other leaders, in similar work. At least two of them spoke of ‘going into extra time’ and this spurred him on (excuse the mixed metaphors, mine not his). The result was that he found himself thinking quite differently. The second half of the game, it transpires, is a time to take risks.

TAKING RISKS

And so it is for all of us. What’s the point of reading about reversing the ageing process unless we use it to good effect? Why should we aspire to live longer unless the life we live is going to be of some worth? If it’s simply about me, then doesn’t that mean, by extension, that yours will be about you, and that we shall each of us become isolated and alone? But if we can establish some sense of community, then it becomes about US. Inclusive. Instead of exclusive.

Some people go sky-diving, learn a new language, or tend an allotment. Nothing wrong in that. They’re all commendable pursuits. But others, like Terry Pratchett (author of the hugely popular Discworld series) who set up an awareness campaign about Alzheimer’s, or Jane Tomlinson, whose own terminal illness with cancer inspired her to raise money for children’s cancer charities, use their experiences to advance the interests of others.

Although not in that league, spending the money to set up this website was a risk which my cautious husband urged me to consider carefully. Learning about blogging, and social networking (still largely a hazy unknown as far as I’m concerned) had a similar risk about them. But perhaps making myself “visible” and, therefore, vulnerable, in order to pool my experience of life in the hope of helping others in similar circumstances, has been the greatest part of my risk-taking strategy. And the greatest risk of all was in writing my novel A Painful Post Mortem for charity. Because it’s inspired by my daughter’s life and death, it’s meant exposing a chunk of my self which, although no longer raw, remains tender and vulnerable.

SCORING A GOAL

We may be able to do none of these things. But joining an organisation like CARE; lobbying MP’s; taking pertinent, non-judgemental sex education into schools; counselling women faced with an unwanted pregnancy – these are risk-taking occupations that are open to anyone. They may mean that in the second half of the game, we have a goal to aim for. And at the end of the game of life, we’ve a legacy to leave. A legacy of knowing we’ve left the world a slightly better place than it might have been without our input.

How about you? Are you in the second half of life and feeling that it’s time to wind down? Are you looking forward to sinking into couch-potato-ism? Is retirement beckoning? Or are you – in the midst of global economic meltdown – afraid of what the future has to offer? Listen to Lyndon: the second half is a time for taking risks. What have you got to lose?

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