The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Essays


What does life look like, seen through the lens of less?

Philip Weinstein

Homme écrivant, étude pour Paludes (detail), c.1920, by Roger de la Fresnaye (1885–1925); photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Less has become an unavoidable horizon in the time of COVID. Whatever our age, the plague we have been suffering from carries the ambient threat of either less life (sudden onset of illness, with who knows what consequences) or no life: our life not just upended, but ended. This general picture comes to resemble, oddly, the “down-sized” one that retirees have learned to live with, a life marked by less. Curiously, too, this condition provides an ironic perspective on the foundational premise of the American Dream: the expectation of more and better.

More than 400 years ago, the Puritans came to these shores wanting more room and better conditions to thrive in than their homeland permitted. For two and a half centuries, the siren call of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—exerted an irresistible appeal. And even though there is now a growing fear that the dream may be playing out, the American expectation of more and better to come, assumed as virtually a birthright, feels too deep to relinquish.

Against the grain of such assumptions, what does life look like, seen through the lens of less? And who better to serve as guides in this exploration than us, the elderly? After all, we’ve been mapping this cramped terrain for some time now.

Less Sleep: 3 am

It is well known, for starters, that older people tend to sleep less, and that the sleep they get is more fitful, interrupted by bouts of wakefulness. (This is said to have also become more common among younger adults during the pandemic, giving them a foretaste of what the elderly experience more routinely.) The most upsetting of these bouts—the hardest to get past—often tend to arrive around 3 am. At this hour, thoughts that felt unproblematic during the day—that had been clean forgotten by dinnertime!—may re-emerge within the mind, laden now with menace.

Why might personal behavior that seemed untroubling at 3 pm become problematic when revisited 12 hours later? I suggest that it is not the behavior that has suddenly revealed its unsettling charge, but, rather, that it is we—unfortunately awake at that ungodly hour—who have lost our resourcefulness. Our diminished capacity—at 3 am—to patrol our thoughts and feelings seems impishly to energize those same thoughts and feelings. Is it our becoming passive prey that turns them into active hunters, hunting us? Why might this happen often enough to be a syndrome in need of interpretation?

There is, first, the darkness of 3 am. Do we ever grasp the extent to which visually recognizing objects and others bolsters (all day long) our familiar sense of ourselves? If identity itself is a corroborative premise—no “me” there without a “you” to confirm it—this model of collaboration falters in the middle of the night. Others have exited from our world. Even that partner bodily in our bed is essentially elsewhere, unconscious. The mere presence of another familiar body may alleviate our isolation, but it is not the same as two awake people confirming each other in a shared space.

Next, defenses we draw on (unceasingly) to massage our daily experience so that it meshes with our self-image—these seem to have gone AWOL at 3 am. (They will return when we awaken in the morning, but we need them now.) By defenses, I have in mind a sort of protective apparatus installed at the heart of my thinking processes and seemingly responsible for the flow of self-justifying thoughts that accompany me throughout the day. For instance, if the car behind me this afternoon honked at me as it passed, it is because its driver was in a hurry and impatient—not because I made a right turn (the turnoff came up fast) without, perhaps, having signaled my turn. If the TV crime serial we watched last night left me frustrated, that’s because its character motivations weren’t well developed—not because I’m having trouble paying attention to the visual and verbal logic of TV dramas as I get older. If my brother and his wife voted for Trump in 2016, that’s because they’re selfishly protecting their wealth—not because cogent reasons may exist for doubting that the Democrats would get the job done. You get the drift. No need to go into heavier matters such as how to pay (as retirees) the expenses that may be required for our last chapter, how to keep our failing health from failing further, or how to avoid thinking about who dies first and who’s left behind.

The upshot is that we who get less sleep are losing something of the self-justifying fabric of thoughts and feelings that used to serve us well. Our identity—insofar as it may be thought of as a fortress—is less adept at resisting life’s various microassaults at 3 am. Put otherwise, our actual relation to our world—that relation seen from a perspective no longer massaged for our approval—comes more into view. When it does, we may not like what we see. One reason older people may be less content than younger ones is that we are at risk of recognizing more of who we really are than is good for us. That is a nocturnal development we’d prefer less of. Yet—for exactly these reasons—the 3 am perspective is a potential gift. It might even be a wakeup call.

Less Asleep: Awakening

I have never forgotten a very minor event that occurred nearly forty years ago. I was teaching at Swarthmore College, and my sixteen-year-old daughter had just got her driver’s license. Late one afternoon, with her best friend beside her, she set off in our second car following my wife in our other one, heading to a store or some nearby event—I forget which. While they were out, I was alone at home in my study, preparing classes for the next day. It was—as Arnold Bennett says of June 16, 1904, in Joyce’s Ulysses—“the dailiest day possible.”

The phone rang at 4 pm, and when I answered it, an unfamiliar female voice said, “Are you the owner of a green 1985 Toyota with this license plate?” It was our car, our plate. She then said, “Don’t worry, a policeman is on the scene, your daughter is all right,” and hung up without another word.

Panic overtook me. A moment earlier I had been revising my notes on a novella by Conrad, but now my life had suddenly come undone, been “outed.” What had happened to my daughter? Where was my wife? My life was “outed” in another sense, too: Its meaning was no longer inside me but outside, in a setting I knew nothing of, in thrall to a violence as undeniable as it was unknown. These were pre-cellphone days, so a few more minutes passed before my wife reached me.

What had just happened, she explained, was that she had safely crossed a busy intersection and our daughter had immediately followed her, not noticing a fast-approaching car on the cross-street. The cars collided with each other, the front right fender of our car was shattered, and my daughter’s friend was a few inches away from a bodily harm you wouldn’t want to think about. Both girls were terrified, but neither was hurt. Nor was the driver of the other car.

While what the unknown caller, who turned out to be the driver of the other car, had told me was true—my daughter had not been hurt—the psychological drama ran according to a different logic. Rather than soothe me, the news that my daughter was unharmed released—like the genie sprung from a bottle—the entire accident in its worst guise. I helplessly replayed it, second by second—saw the mangled body—before reminding myself that, in fact, no one had been hurt. There would be repair costs to pay, but—all cooler heads would agree—we had been lucky that day. That bullet we fantasize with our name on it had hit home, but it had been a blank.

The good news notwithstanding, I was immersed in aftershock, unable to stop replaying what might have happened or put to rest what had been borne in on me: that my daughter was mortal. That’s when I grasped that I normally live at half-speed (at best), as most of us do, enclosed in a torpor of self-protective assumptions. I believe—almost all the time—that I am safe. It won’t happen to me. “The quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. Our ego defenses are our “stupidity”—Oedipus wasn’t especially worried before Tiresias arrived—yet, if we were less “wadded,” would our lives still feel like they were ours?

One of my professional colleagues had served in World War II, and he often tried to explain to me the cost exacted by his wartime experience. His outfit had been assigned to eastern France during those awful months in late 1944, pursuing the Germans as they slowly retreated. He found it impossible, day after day, to keep from knowing that he might be killed. He ended up gravely wounded instead—for which he was awarded the Purple Heart—but what I call the “aftershock” rarely left him thereafter. He had experienced for too long that it could happen to him tomorrow; he could not “unknow” what he knew. You cannot be in the presence of death that long, he would tell me over the years, and not be changed by it.

I have taken this extensive detour through my daughter’s minor accident and my colleague’s traumatic war experience to make the point that the elderly have more difficulty ignoring what is in store for them. The elderly have trouble not only ignoring who they really are but also keeping at bay their sense of what is coming their way: The “less” that they feel menaced by is less life itself. The still intact “stupidity” of the young, even if less intact during our plague, is the all-but-lost birthright of the elderly. Is it any surprise that the latter may sleep less—that those 3 am moments insist on visitation privileges? But is it possible that such unwelcome moments might constitute genuine awakenings? That what George Eliot calls “stupidity” might really be stupidity, even if our sanity, survival, and health depend on retaining a precious measure of it?

Less Health

The body’s lessening health awakens in the mind a kind of awareness and appreciation that the robust rarely register. It may be that you grasp things most keenly only when something about them starts to go wrong, when the “wadding” starts to fail. Elderly people’s bodies—sooner or later—go wrong; they are programmed to do so.

A few years ago I had an encounter with a new doctor, and since he was replacing my old one, a certain amount of preliminary paperwork needed to be done. This included a brief psychological profile—a couple of dozen questions you answer on a scale of one to five (one indicating serene bliss, five conveying impenetrable depression). Sitting in the reception room, I made the mistake of responding candidly—mainly threes, with the odd two or four, but no ones or fives. Twenty minutes later he showed up in my waiting room, introduced himself, and abruptly declared, “Well, you’re pretty obsessive-compulsive, aren’t you?” I was shocked, even though I should have realized that most patients fudge their answers toward the bright side. I pushed back against his hasty conclusion—he had never met me before—even as, silently, reluctantly, I recognized a smidgeon of truth in his charge.

He was willing to keep his mind open, he said. So I expanded on my answers by providing further details about my life. Listening attentively for a few minutes, he shifted to a different diagnosis. My problem, he now announced, is that I overthink things. At this I really did bridle. Something essential about how I understand life itself was being demeaned by a man who had known me less than ten minutes. I labored to get him to understand how and why overthinking has served as the gold standard of my professional life. (I was even on the edge of trotting out Socrates and the unexamined life being not worth living, but better sense prevailed.) As a professor of the humanities, I’d done my best, I told him, to practice overthinking. The hallmark of serious thinking is to call into question one’s earlier thinking. Overthinking, I ended up claiming, is how we come closest to the impersonal truth of things: how they are, independent of our preferences.

The doctor was unimpressed. “It’s bad for your health,” he insisted. “Your blood pressure and major organs, your state of mind and state of nerves: All of these suffer from overthinking. Keep on doing it—you’re seventy-eight, after all—and it could kill you.” This left me in a quandary I had never confronted before. What he had peremptorily dismissed as overthinking had contributed, I knew, to my best writing and teaching. Yet I was now seventy-eight (he had that right), and it was true that I was seeing him because my blood pressure—always high—had been going higher for the past couple of years. I left his office baffled. Could his judgment be right, less for who I used to be than for who I had become?

Musing further on it, I’m unable to say who was right, and even unable to split the difference between us. I have devoted my life to overthinking. Inasmuch as our defenses continuously distort our perception of the world in our favor, our only hope of seeing the object as it is requires that we labor to get ourselves out of the way. Over time, a tidy professional career has rewarded these attempts. Dig deeper/think further/come upon the unknown of what you thought you knew: That has been a sort of credo. Could it now be a death sentence?

Age exposes the body to complications that only get worse. Persevering in a sustained way against the grain of shared commonplaces is labor—labor that (like prolonged swimming against the tide) may exact, in time, its toll. Could making peace with the given, with the current of things as they appear, mean something more than lazy-mindedness? Might this, as a stance, be wiser than ever watchful suspicion?

Protracted overthinking may not merely damage an old man’s health. It may keep him from accepting at face value the bounty of what is daily given—what is right before his eyes. Whether it be savoring a moment of intimacy or the radiance of a sunset, the elderly need to find ways of saying yes to precious things on offer, now. Being in the moment: That is what that doctor was recommending, just as it is what a great tennis player exhibits when playing each point for all it is worth, each point one at a time—not fantasizing about the match that will come next.

Less Distraction: Time for Reckoning

Travel is perhaps the form of distraction to which retirees are most drawn. Gigantic cruise ships—floating cities of the elderly—traverse the globe, promising their clientele authentic encounters with exotica. But of course, during COVIDtide, cruise ship travel virtually came to a halt. Options for elderly distraction consequently diminished. It grew harder to avoid the self-reckoning that less work, less sleep, less health, and now, less travel, were bringing in their wake. No one has expressed the impact of such recognitions better than T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets:

And last, the rending pain
of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been;
the shame

Of motives late revealed,
and the awareness

Of things ill done and done
to others’ harm

Which once you took for exercise
of virtue.

Then fools’ approval stings, and
honour stains. (lines 765–70)

Eliot articulates, exquisitely, the drama of defenses crumbling, of our later recognizing self-interested moves that had earlier, cunningly, passed themselves off as “exercise of virtue.” Even honorary degrees, the North Star of the most successful of the elderly, cannot protect against that sting, that stain.

I have devoted my life to literary reckoning. At Harvard for years and at Swarthmore for decades, I saw my task as the reckoning of literary values, as teaching students how to recognize and assess those values. I tried to help others see what was most significantly at play in the verbal patterning of a poem, a play, or a novel. I understood my job as a staging of encounters between the minds of readers and the artfulness of texts. The realm of sublime literary achievements: that was the garden in which I was privileged to spend my time laboring.

So it is an unwelcome insight to see something of myself in Eliot’s lines, to recognize that not only are there snakes in this garden, but that I, the gardener, have brought some of them in. The activities of writing and teaching literature, like all human activities, are saturated in ego energies. We bring ourselves (our strengths and no less our limitations) into our work. However obscurely, we are always arguing the brief of ourselves. Fueled by creaturely shortcomings, my critical acumen has battened on a self-evading critique of others. A life spent in reckoning works of art has, all adroitly, spared me from a good deal of self-reckoning. Now retired, I tend to find myself less spared—especially at 3 am.

Less and More

“Fifteen apparitions have I seen: The worst, a coat upon a coat-hanger.” It should come as no surprise that W.B. Yeats wrote this haunting line late in life. To glimpse the signs of one’s slowly disappearing body—“a coat upon a coat-hanger”—is literally to see some of our bodily “wadding” come undone, and to understand, anew, the lifelong desire for more. Who doesn’t want more? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Does anyone ever have enough of these? America is founded on the wistful gap between things as they stubbornly are and things as we want them to be. It is a gap that cannot be closed.

I claimed at the outset of this essay that the conditions I would explore were no unique province of the aged. Let me close by proposing that, though we don’t like to think about this, less operates as a dimension of our creaturely DNA, underwriting the systolic-diastolic rhythms of our lives in time. Think for a moment about famous people you know of and their fabulous adventures—their love affairs, their tumultuous time in the limelight, their famous friends, their remarkable achievements and notable failures.

Against such extravagant fullness, how could I not concede the penury of my life? My scorecard is diminutive, all but invisible compared to the magnitude of theirs. One wife, two children, no affairs, a single profession, a number of books written (no bestsellers among them), my share of unfulfilled hopes and lingering regrets (none of these in the public domain). The famous folks’ more dwarfs my meager less.

But in the light shed by Yeats’s coat upon a coat-hanger, the light of our passing, to what extent does anyone continue to possess the more that their scorecard indicates as theirs? Our passage through time makes us all leaky vessels, incapable of holding on to our experience. Ask Clinton or Bush or Obama how much their time in the White House shapes their current grasp of what their lives mean to them. Ask an aging Casanova how much his earlier affairs play into his present sense of himself. Less stubbornly marks our common lot. We are condemned—perhaps blessed as well—to be the being that gains and loses being as we move through time. If less were not wrought into the very fabric of our identity, we would not, incorrigibly, keep dreaming of more.