Some ten years ago, I watched a documentary film that had a deep impact on how I perceive life. It was entitled “42 Up”. It followed a number of Brits from different regions and social backgrounds every seven years, from the ages of seven to forty-two. I saw them go from being sparkly-eyed kids to awkward teenagers to responsible adults to middle-aged men and women. Some more ordinary than others, some happier, some more successful, some more fulfilled than others.
Seeing the result of this film, spanning over thirty-five years, left me feeling both amazed and sad. What I found in all of them was the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with age and experience. That also went with a loss of ideals in many. And loss of beauty as well. Today, at forty-two, I should watch it again and see how I feel about it. Or better still, I should watch the latest film in Michael Apted’s series that began with “Seven Up!” (1964), which is now “63 Up”. Somewhere along the line, the title lost its exclamation mark… which, incidentally, seems a perfect way to sum up the difference between the ages of seven and sixty-three.
In this COVID-19 crisis, I am fortunate to have a new job that I’m excited about, to have my wide-eyed child by my side, to live in a home and a neighbourhood I love, to be in regular touch with my loving family. But these times of relative isolation have also brought on a new wave of reflection which, combined with the Netflix content I’ve been watching (such as “Marriage Story” or “The Last Dance”) reminds me that life doesn’t turn out the way one expects. Ever. There are unexpected successes, joys, falls and pains. And while love and hope inspire and drive us, suffering and pain play a significant role in shaping us as well. I saw this in “42 Up”, too. There is so much we do – or avoid doing – for fear of being hurt. Or to prove someone who has hurt us that they were wrong to do so.
Though I don’t believe that we are born as clean slates, I do see us as clay shapes that life hits, carves, moulds over time. Bit by bit, we evolve into complex beings, growing increasingly unique and different from each other, as life adds one texture after another to our initially smooth clay. At middle age, I perceive love and hope in my peers. But none has kept that initial innocence we all used to have. That faith that there will be a “happily ever after”. Because our lives have taught us otherwise. There is no “ever after” as such. There is only happy, then unhappy, then happy again, and so on and so forth. But over time, erosion makes us less affected or moved by unhappiness and happiness alike. Our skin gets thicker, we roll with the punches and we enjoy well-deserved rests after each round.
In this time of contemplation for the whole world, I do appreciate what I have. I also look forward to many more moments of happiness. Even though I know better than to expect what I imagine for myself to come true (in the positive or the negative sense), I do know that joy comes back to me after every struggle. But where am I right now? If I were to do my own “42 Up” recap of my life, it would probably go like this: At age seven, my world was enchanted, almost perfect. At fourteen, it was painful and filled with self-loathing. At twenty-one, it was hopeful and looking to the future. At twenty-eight, it was harsh but glorious. At thirty-five, it was awakened to what adult life is. At forty-two, it is unsettled and I am searching for steady ground.
For the past three years, I have been feeling like the earth under my feet is shaking. And, like in a seismic zone, every time it seems to stop, another earthquake rocks the ground I walk upon. And it isn’t easy to build on moving ground. But I have been fortunate enough to join a company built on the concept of constant transformation, flexibility and adaptability. And my travelling companion is a little girl who loves the circus so much, she now excels at finding her balance in any situation like a tightrope walker. What I must now learn from both is not to expect the ground to ever stand still, but rather to function and grow on moving ground. Perhaps by the next seven-year mark, my spirit will be as agile as my daughter’s nimble body.
(Title: Documentary Film directed by Michael Apted)