“We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for” – Walter Benjamin (Passagen-Werk).
The Tai Chi instructor stood there, his arms outstretched, his eyes closed, his loose T shirt hanging on him like a second skin, his trousers flowing to the floor. He was a man in his seventies. “concentrate on the chi; a giant ball, enveloping us, impregnating us all” he said. I thought, “shit! I don’t want to be impregnated!” I looked around. My companions. they were all women of a certain age far and away from any impregnation. Why do old people do this? The oldest of us was 84 years old. The youngest was 67. Every Wednesday morning we put ourselves through two hours of this shit. Just why on earth do we do this?
One convenient answer is we are the boomer generation, the generation that time forgot. We refuse to obey the laws. We are the generation of old rockers forever strutting our stuff with skin hanging off our bones; we are the dream makers, the makers of dreams; we embarrass ourselves on tour ships by getting drunk and groping male stewards; we sleep alone in large houses chocked up to the gill with half a century old debris of our lives we gawk at pubescent humans of both sexes and get drunk in unseemly fashion every night and at times go gaga on spliffs we cannot handle anymore; in the mornings, sober and unashamed, we go to yoga, to Tai chi, to Pilates and nibble at vegan dishes for lunch. What else is there to do?
And so I find myself in a room full of elderly, yes, elderly, some of them even older than me, human beings gyrating to the mutterings of this sage like instructor.
And what am I about, I ask myself. What am I doing here? Not in the Tai Chi, hall, but on this earth, having done my duty working, procreating and nurturing and now that the flying lessons are over and the birds have flown the coop why am I now doing this dance of existential ennui?
The answer came slowly one night while I was in my cups, that it is precisely that, the existential ennui which affects us. Ever since I was 5 years old I was told my goals, to attend school, to study the tables, to do the exam hurdles, to aim for a career, to keep my nose down and stay close to the creed of work work work. Now, the generation that time forgot have ourselves forgotten how to fade away gracefully. No, we move around like cheerful fossils looking our voice in the void.
Ennui has been defined sometimes as a boredom that passeth all understanding. It is much more than boredom. Boredom can be got over. Ennui steeps deep in your life and asks urgent and uncomfortable questions on what you are, what you are about and where you are headed. It is akin to a listless and ever present angst. Such a state of mind can not be chased away by blindly redecorating the house or by burying yourself in the vegetable patch. Merely keeping busy is not a solution to the questions that people who have finished with families and jobs, get asked in their heads. After all, we of the boomer generation have spent the last forty, fifty years working our elbows off. More work is merely dumb.
The discovery of boredom or ennui or acedia or even melancholy in its profound form has been a subject of preoccupation in Western Literature and the Arts since the earliest times. St. Augustine talked about it; Dickens talked about it; The Existentialists agonised over it, and poets like Baudelaire and Eliot toiled over it. T.S.Eliot here groans:
“I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”.
So what is the solution for the acedia, ennui, boredom, melancholy faced by the elderly of today? The answer, if you want a convenient answer, lies in the direction of spirituality. The hippies of the sixties knew that merely material wealth is not getting us the satisfaction and peace that we seek. They looked to drugs, to meditation, to herbs, to the East to tap into a source that could give them something more substantial than the comfortable middle class middle income life most people aim for. Grown into old age, these same hippies now have lost their edge, their original rebellion but they have kept their wisdom and now seek the spiritual path through their yoga , their Tai Chi, their Pilates, and other rituals of survival to walk decently into their final years. They aim to keep their mind and body from deteriorating too fast; they aim to put the breaks on Time’s fast chariot racing into the void.
Some of us, former church goers are stepping back tentatively into churches we once shunned, long skirted foreign women are flocking to India in search of that spiritual purity they cannot find in the west; those fastidious ones, the ones who hate spiders, go to high end clean spas where they get massaged with exotic oils; the men in their limp shorts bow and kneel and prostrate themselves before statues that were once considered pagan. Such is the need to get back some meaning into our lives.
After working for forty years for the man and retiring with that empty feeling in your stomach you have to find something to fill the void. But what we find is, stretching before us that accadie, an overpowering state of listlessness or torpor. Of course we can do gardening to fill our time. Or we can look after grand children or go shopping, but on a philosophical level we cannot escape the “why”s of life especially when we approach the end of that life we need to know what there is beyond the daily scrabbling we put ourselves through to merely survive or even to entertain ourselves. What else is there? That is the reason for our ennui.
But I am afraid, like all questions of such import, there is no answer. The question, is the answer.