In a Strange Land: Seven

I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.

It was different in times of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Then, age was about growing up, and then it was about the dance of schooling, and then it was about finding a mate and having a career. I knew my age then when there was so much of my life that I was supposed to do.

Age gives us our bearings. Exile, however, was uncharted. The end of exile was certain, because death would come. I didn’t know how old I was, because I didn’t know when I would meet my death. If I were to die tomorrow or one year from yesterday, then it would turn out that I was now quite old, but I could not know in advance my longitude and latitude.

Maybe I would live 100 years—but 200? Probably not. My actuarial age—eighteen years or so from the end of exile—was merely a wager. The truth was that I did not know—could not know—how old I was.

I chose to embrace the uncertainty, the shifting compass, that was the color of my exile. Certainty was within reach, of course, but I had no inclination toward self-induced finality.

I did not know the age of the wine. Would it matter if I did? Would I choose to do a different thing after breakfast that morning, knowing that my exile would last five years—only five years and not ten or thirty?

It was not obvious to me that I should live my life as though there were no tomorrow or, more realistically, fewer tomorrows. The live-for-today philosophy was a sort of mental game, an exercise in benign self-deception that amounted to little more than playing the odds. For example, if I made myself believe that I had only one year to live, then I would be sure to take care of all those things that I should take care of before the end. I would clean out my closet. I would discretely dispose of the damning evidence. I would live it up. Having done all that, any morning that I would wake to beyond the next 365 should be taken as a bonus.

I thought about it, but it didn’t work for me. I could not make myself believe that I had only one year left to live. Really, I did not want to make myself believe that. I did not want to put myself through the anguish of imagining that the end of my exile would come so soon.

Besides, it seemed a crude way of replacing the ideology of my younger life with an assumed set of things that I was supposed to do before I died. In all likelihood, I would survive the year and find myself just as uncertain about my bearings.

And what then? Could I regain a sense of knowing what I was supposed to be doing by pretending once more that I had only a year left to live? It seemed unlikely.

If I had known how old I was, would my life have been different? If I had known for certain that I had another 30 years to live, would that have changed how I lived that day? Would I have valued each day as much? Or, did the very uncertainty of my exile make life sweeter?

The fact was that I did not live a hypothetical of certainty one way or the other. Not knowing what I was supposed to do made me feel vaguely uneasy at times. I did not know how old I was, and, if I valued life at all, I could not know.

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Some other stuff for later,

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