Timeless Fixations

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I turned 60 last week. Miles away, I saw that milestone coming - the day when the millstone of being 60 would finally be slung around my aging neck.

I took comfort from the way my actual birthday passed like any other day, just the usual 24 hours. The millstone of time rolls forward relentlessly. We can't even pause it to mark its major crossings. When asked how it feels to be 60 I say it feels a few days older than 59.

limited lifespans scare us humans, more than other creatures. It's unlikely that potato bugs lose sleep over aging, but most of us humans have lost a wink or two. Other creatures have a much easier time being here now which may explain why some people campaign for mindfulness so insistently. We foresee our ends and they don't look pretty, not even those who believe in some happily ever afterlife or plateau of detached enlightenment.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death," Ernest Becker argued that anxiety about our impending deaths drives us to "immortality campaigns," quests for eternal life but also for eternal truths. Research in Terror management theory suggests that we all become more ideologically steadfast when reminded that we're going to die.

I teach evolutionary theory and find that what bugs people most about it is not that it diminishes God's role or suggests that we evolved from apes, but that it reveals how there are no eternal truths. Today's adaptive solutions may well prove maladaptive tomorrow. With time and evolution there are no eternal plateaus, no permanent winners. Time erodes everything and everyone. Just when you discover the secret, it changes.


Uncertain times like ours have always stirred people to more intense immortality campaigns. Fundamentalisms grow in membership and intensity. To constrain that dangerous impulse, it's good to remember the popular British slogan from another uncertain era: Keep calm and carry on. It applies in times of uncertainty like ours but also to everyone's slow incremental crisis of aging.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman is a teacher and a blogger for Psychology Today.