Along with mottled skin and back-talking joints, aging brings new fears in addition to the ones we have known since we first met the Boogey-man.
Yes, of course, there are the universal terrors: hosting a bizarre illness unknown to medical science, suffering a lingering death, forgetting how to tie one's Reeboks or how to manipulate Velcro straps on shoes. But last week I realized I had been harboring, just out there in the twilight on the edges of consciousness, a new shadowy fear.
Over the last few years, I've become afraid that I will never again learn anything new.
Swimming as we all do now in an exploding galaxy of new stuff, how could I have such a fear? New stuff grabs us by the lapels before noon every day of the world, right? Drenches us, drowns us; we swim in it for all we're worth, whether smoothly like Esther Williams , her Jell-O-plastered hair unruffled, her lipstick unblurred, or desperately like the sudden victim of Jaws.
The hitch comes, not with a shortage of "new stuff," but with "learning." You know how sometimes the magnets on the refrigerator door slowly lose their stick-to-it-iveness and just let your pictures or cartoons or $5-off Barnes & Noble coupons slither to the floor? That can happen with the old memory, too.
You read something, or meet someone, that strikes you as interesting; you make a point of tacking it up on the walls of your mind, but a day later, poof! Not there. Example: with a tour of Costa Rica coming up in July, I've been trying to learn a little more Spanish. My sixty-year old Spanish is rusty but still working, I've found. It's the NEW words that have no glue. Words that I did not learn in Mrs. Detor's Spanish class in 1955 simply will not stick. Not without a lot of huffing and puffing. ( I finally nailed down the word for "tip." )
So the other night the scary thought barged in the door: what if what I've got is all I get? What if I have to make do with whatever is already up in the grey cells, with new knowledge flitting in and out like moths but never settling down and becoming part of the household? Different things make different people nervous. For some, the thought of eventually having to give up the keys of the car for safety reasons is hugely depressing. For me, when it comes, it will be only a minor inconvenience. But giving up the excitement of gazing out a new window in the mind would be gloomy indeed.
Happily, I entertained this particular fear for only a short time. A few days ago, I was reading
some essays by the great Jungian analyst, philosopher and writer Helen M. Luke. She was developing the idea that as we try to truly bring ourselves to full consciousness, including confronting our inner demons, we must treat these demons with "courtesy and respect," not gritted teeth and self-loathing. She tells an ancient African folk tale to make the point, and brings forth the deeper insight from this tale with great skill and simplicity. It was a perspective I'd never encountered in just this depth before.
And Eureka! Came the light! I was grateful to have learned this new bit of insight, but especially happy to realize that I HAD learned it and it WOULD stick. I might not remember the details of the folk tale; I might even forget that it was Helen Luke who unraveled the tangles. But the bit of wisdom she imparted, unlike specific facts, would not evaporate from the gray cells and disappear. Somehow, it will stay put, I knew. Even when I am flapping about in unlaced shoes.