Age and regrets

John Barrymore said that man is not old until his regrets take the place of  dreams. I was fifty-seven this month. No big deal there; no landmark birthday or a bus pass but a milestone of sorts as I now have three adult children. It was a point I remember marking ahead when the youngest was born and now it’s here and the end of the runway is indubitably closer than the threshold, is Barrymore’s aphorism standing the test of time?

I don’t think it’s a question of how you feel. Most people, it seems to me, inhabit a mental age that is theirs for life. Teenagers who have the cast of mind of a sixty-year old, nonogenerians  who think like twenty-year olds – we have all met them and recognise them in ourselves. Jon Snow, the broadcaster, was interviewed recently. He was asked about the age difference between him, aged sixty-six and his wife, a forty year old surgeon. He agreed that it was a big gap - as he was only twenty-one and she was definitely forty and getting wider as he was now feeling more like seventeen. I’ll go for thirty.

And I have many dreams: too many places to visit, things to learn and friendships to enjoy. But what about regrets? Of course: they are the collateral of age, the price you pay for that privilege. I don’t mean this is in the sense of remorse – the regret you feel for a hurt or bad deed that you cannot undo, but rather that any life is the sum of choices – and every choice, turning or door opened along that long corridor means that there were others that you could have chosen and which would have lead to another life – but you didn’t. And now you can’t. It’s too late to be a ballet dancer or a racing driver. As Arthur Miller nicely put it,'Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.'

Does it matter? Not, of course, in the life of the world - that goes on blithely without you. But you only inhabit your brief flare of the match – your only reality. Did you fill your space and can you still fill other spaces yet? It occurs to me that this is a great privilege given to writers. You get a second peek, another walk down that corridor, another chance to open another door. And perhaps you can help others to come to terms with their own lacunae that are the twins of getting old by taking a look with you.

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