A few years ago, while reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by surgeon and author Atul Gawande, I highlighted an excerpt. It wrote me particularly well.
“It is not death that the very old tell me that they fear. This is what happens after death – their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life. As Felix told me, ‘Old age is of loss. There is a continuous chain.’ Philip Roth put it more bitterly in his novel Everyman: ‘Old age is not a fight. Old age is a carnage.'”
Now, in the Middle Ages (how strange that sounds for us, once-young, so to say), I can admit that it is more naive to highlight that passage as “particularly well-written”. And the man was very young. The real significance of Gawande’s message is now sinking. Because what I see is a series of losses all around, losses that are both literal and metaphorical.
To begin with, the people I used to worship and think of as imitators are now dead, or staring at mortality as they retell stories from a bygone era. It is a unique kind of orphan, when all the heroes have lost their powers.
It’s inevitable that this will take some soul-searching. I’ve sometimes started to wonder: could I have lived differently, making the most of my time? Close friends are reporting similar trains of thought. But life goes on. Just have to work to maintain the status quo, have a precious family to love, make money, and put in a lot of constant effort.
But do things have to remain as they were, or are? This is a question that very few people consider as their years go by. This is a question that certainly didn’t occur to me.
The idea of disrupting one’s own life came up a few days back in a conversation with a friend. He recently upended his life, and not for some ordinary reason. At the time of the first COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, he was on the fast track to one of the biggest companies in India. He seemed destined for great things. And then he walked away from all this. I assumed he wanted to get out of the rat race; Perhaps use your middle age years to launch yourself in a new direction, perhaps as an entrepreneur.
His reasons and his mission were completely different. Her mother is now weak, and lives outside Chennai; His daughter is a teenager who prefers to live in Mumbai. “Both are weak beings who need me now. It’s only been a while since my mother left and my daughter won’t need me like that,” she told me.
When he did maths in his working hours, he realized that he could not do justice to a demanding job and wanted to spend these precious years with his family. So now he offers his services as a consultant, and has carved a whole new lifestyle for himself.
He works outside Chennai for at least 10 days every two months. He is traveling more, seeing the country and the world, thus fulfilling a dream of his. And he spends the rest of his time with his daughter in Mumbai.
What does his wife do with all this, I asked her. “She understands that I don’t want to have regrets about the past in the future,” he said.
While most of us don’t live like that, as the world expands and a lot more seems possible, there’s definitely a message here that I want to pass on to my kids. Life isn’t just a carefully woven tapestry; It could also be an Etch A sketch. Don’t rule out the option to shake it all out and start all over again.
(The writer is co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of Aadhaar Effect)