Consciousness and Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 13, 2017

If you’re in your social security years, how do you tell the difference between an episode of poor health and getting old? What does getting old feel like? At what decade do we lose our vitality? Since I have no previous experience of being old it’s all guesswork on my part. Whenever I get sick now, I feel like I’ve gotten old because my drive disappears, but when I feel better, I think, “Oh, I was just sick.” When I was younger and got sick, I just felt possessed by ill health — it didn’t affect my mental attitude. Now it does.

There’s an old saying, “You’re only as old as you feel.” My doctors have been pushing statins on me for years, but I always have to quit them after several months because of the side-effects. After I quit and get them out of my system, I feel ten years younger. That’s an amazing sensation. Of course, my doctors insist I go back on the statins by taking a smaller dose. I’ve tried 40mg, 20mg, 10mg, and I’m now on 10mg twice a week, but three times I’ve experienced that premature aging affect. My conscious outlook on life is dramatically different when I’m off the statins. Unfortunately, many factors statistically demand I need to take them.


For several weeks now I’ve been having trouble with my stomach. It leaves me feeling yucky, old feeling, and indifferent to doing the things I love. I’ve been experimenting to see which foods are upsetting my stomach, but some sixth sense tells me my gut bacteria are out of whack. There’s tons of promotional literature about the miracle of probiotics but I’m afraid of taking supplements since they are unregulated. I did find “11 Probiotic Foods That Are Super Healthy” and I started eating some of them. If anyone has experience with probiotics, let me know. But my gut is telling me I’ll feel much younger if I could get my bacterial house in order.

All this getting sick and getting better is teaching me something about consciousness. My various perceptions about living and doing are directly linked to physical well-being. But I’m feeling a distinct difference over time that might be aging. I’ve been retired four years now, and it seems like I’ve already gone through a number of psychological phases. They are subtle, and all of them are related to ambitions.

At my age, I no longer have big ambitions. I turn 66 this month, so I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to be when I grow up. My goals are about what I can do in a day. For example, writing this essay is typical of my ambitions. I have little projects and hobbies I want to do, and on average, each ambition takes hours of work and concentration. I no longer think about projects that take days.

When I’m feeling “old” I don’t even want to do something that takes hours to complete. If I’m feeling older, I tend to want to do things that are in the moment, like hanging out with friends, watching television, listening to music, or reading.

This makes me theorize that aging is related to the scope of our ambitions. It’s not a perfect idea. Some young people can dedicate themselves to a decade of work, like getting a Ph.D. or learning to play a musical instrument professionally. While others might only commit to months or weeks. I’ve never been able to commit myself to really big projects.

Last year my friend Mike and I spent months creating version 4.0 of the Classics of Science Fiction. That felt really good. I’ve wanted to find another project that size because it feels rewarding, and healthy, to get up every day and get a little more accomplished on a long-term project. However, I think I’ve aged because I don’t have what it takes to mentally do that now.

I keep thinking if I could get healthier I might. I try hard to eat right and exercise, but those old standbys aren’t paying off dividends like they used to. That’s why I’m starting to think aging is related to ambition. Health problems come and go, and if I could filter out their up and down effects, what’s left could be attributed to aging.

Knowing this makes me think I can apply mind over matter to counter aging. Mentally, I keep blowing a bugle sounding “Charge!” assuming I’ll jump to my feet and dash up some hill. But I don’t. I rationalize how comfy my chair is, how alluring the dark jazz I’m hearing on the stereo, how I’d rather just stay read or daydream instead.

Is aging the state of consciousness that compels us to do less?

I’ve always paid attention to old people because they are the trailblazers exploring a future I might see someday. Most of them are doing less. Sure, there are outliers who are more active in their eighties than I was in my twenties, but mostly I see them giving up their hobbies one by one. I’m evening seeing my friends who are in their sixties starting to give up some of their once cherished activities. Sometimes it’s just practical sanity, like giving up mountain biking. Other times it’s because of failing body parts, like giving up music because of growing deafness. And a lot of it is downsizing because of money, time, or jadedness.

For decades I was a programmer. I thought I’d continue to program in retirement, but I haven’t. I still think of myself as a “programmer” even though I haven’t programmed in four years. It’s a kind of letting go. I haven’t let go, but I should. I still want to program. I still read about programming. I still think of programming projects. I just don’t program.

Is aging the chasm that widens between doing and not doing?


21 thoughts on “Consciousness and Aging”

  1. I am with you. After a week at a senior choral camp, I feel I must really get back in gear. I have some plans, involving 20 minute intervals. I am trying to make music my retirement thing, but I have no talent so it is all work — singing, piano, all of it. We’ll see…

  2. I do well to keep house, cook, do laundry, get groceries, weed and water, run errands, go out with friends once or twice a week, and read. I get tired – physically tired. I still really cook – like from scratch – that’s a hobby. And I read and write reviews. My house has 7 rooms and I gave up the cleaning lady when I retired. I let myself have 1 or 2 days a week where I really do nothing – like weekends. I just get tired more easily than I did when I was younger. I’ll be 70 in a couple months.

  3. I’ll spare y’all the litany of physical deterioration that I’ve been blessed with. Mostly because it’s pretty much my own fault since I’ve spent most of the time since my 20’s overweight and in a job that had lots of overtime and early on, lots of hard physical work. Once the hard physical work turned into supervision and then management, the hours didn’t change but the physical activity did. Hitting 45 and discovering what “Type II Diabetes” was came as a shock, and a deserved change in diet and lifestyle. Except for those work hours.

    And of course, except for the cyclical backsliding/recovering in regards to diet. Approaching retirement, I dedicated myself to losing weight and building the musculature back up to help support cardiovascular strength and a useful body mass that would burn calories through exercise. I took it seriously and lost 80 lbs in a year – both by diet and time at the gym and by spending more time on former hobbies such as hiking, bicycling, rock-hounding, camping and other outdoor activities. It worked fine for a couple of years.

    Until some bad luck and past bad behavior brought forth the penance due. If only Keith Laumer’s “Great Time Machine Hoax” was real, and/or today’s medical miracles included rejuvenating a ruined body’s arthritic ligament/spine/joint issues. Not to mention all of those other fun things that come with age and wearing out the body’s systems.

    I guess it’s those “sins of youth” that end up sticking with us the longest. Although it occurs to me that it’s really the sins of “not thinking too far into the future” that really get us. Or maybe that’s just me.

    Hang in there JW. Push as hard as you can as long as you can.

  4. Jim, you’re not old enough to be feeling this way!

    I hope you recover your drive to do something—anything—that kindles your enthusiasm.

  5. My life experience is somewhat different. I retired first. Did little in my youth except party, slouch around, and global travel on a shoe string. Fed on a cultural diet of ‘dropping out and sticking it to the man’, or a punk era version. A metaphorical car crash – more a shunt but no less disabling. Gradually, over the years I grew up. Now at 56 I am growing in confidence, experience and ability. I have recently completed an MA and other post graduate professional qualifications. I have also just written an historical fantasy, elephants and aliens – Padma and the Elephant Sutra – plug (free on iBooks). I feel about 35 (or how I imagine a 35 year old should feel), and poverty will probably keep me working until I don’t know when. But I’m OK with that, I am looking forward to the next 50 years. I am healthy and well.
    I always used to build up my stomach flora with fresh yoghurt before trips to India. So, go and eat some cultures on a brave new world. You may still have a whole other life if you choose. I say renew, not reflect. 100 will soon be the new 66 after your metamorphosis.

    1. I’m impressed W L. You certainly embody the adage, “You’re only as old as you feel.”

      Good luck with your novel. I envy you that. I keep hoping to find the energy to write a novel.

  6. Hi James

    As I type this my mother in law is in the living room. At 83 she is almost finished the old one (18×20 )room house on the farm that she jacked up, replaced the sills, joists and floor. She braced the walls, rebuilt some windows, thankfully she paid someone to do the roof. When I asked if she wanted help she said she wanted be able to say she did it. This on top of a big garden and and doing a large tile mural. She has been here a week and she has mentioned a number of renovations many she will do herself. She stated the sax at 60 switched to clarinet at 65. Yes I suspect she is an outlier but I also think her attitude is a lifetime of habit. I have had a real problem with procrastination my entire life, now at 61 I l have a number of the typical physical problems, getting longer every year but not serious enough to keep me from all the projects I hope to do. That I still lay at the door of my old friend procrastination. I do find I am more productive at the cabin perhaps because of fewer distractions, no tv or streaming and a change of scene. I am thinking of going over to the library a couple of hours several times a week to work on my blogs.

    I cannot pretend to speak to your situation, sometimes I feel my age sometimes I forget all about it. I have always been a bit of a hypochondriac and I think now it is worse because things I shrugged off now I worry more about. Sometimes I am right sometimes not, my doctor earns her money.

    I have been retired for a couple of years and certainly planned to be further along. the rec room in the basement is still a concept and my weekly blog posts are more monthly. So I know the feeling you describe.

    I do enjoy your posts, my most latest post referenced your thoughts on the Golden Age of SF.

    All the best James
    and Happy Reading.

    1. Your mother-in-law is amazing. My mother lived to 91, but my father died at 49.

      One thing I’m really looking forward to Guy is next month The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one is coming out on audio. Now that will be some Golden Age SF to hear.

  7. You might be on to something there. I’m 59. My sense of my Self, on any kind of ‘age’ scale, shifts according to what I’m focused on. Only to a certain point though. If I go at it too hard I pay in the following days. I am a lot more conscious now of the days I let drift by never being recoverable than I was a decade ago.

  8. When you aren’t feeling well, ambition goes out the window. I eat some yogurt (Activa Lite) just about every day. That seems to regulate my gut. I also try to get some sunshine to avoid seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I also take Vitamin-D every day. After 60, it’s all maintenance.

  9. I’m tired all the time now, but can’t tell if that’s the result of age or just stress. One thing is sure though, the days are more fleeting. A typical day is now over before I even think about doing anything beyond necessary chores. I’m starting to wonder if the well known time acceleration thing is more than just perceptual. Could my neurons actually be firing more slowly as I age, thus causing time to seemingly speed up? Or could this be the result of some semi-mystical quantum effect where perception becomes reality? All I really know is that the days are now flickering by like calendar pages in some old movie.

  10. Just turned 66. Retired partially from consulting in April. Doing 5-6 hours a week consulting from home. I found it very hard to work up the motivation to do what little work I had to. Now I’m completely retired. I frequently go on low carb diets to lose weight and find my body chemistry changes after three days, especially the digestive portion. You may want to give it a shot to see if it helps. I have more energy and more anger because I can’t eat bread. I’m ok with the trade off and the weight comes off quickly.

    I just started reading, How Jesus Became God. Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. Love this post and I experience the same seesaw of old! No just sick. At 77 I notice that stress has a huge effect on energy. When I finally kicked away the stress generator, suddenly new projects pop into my life. Like magic. Probiotics: apparently home made kefir is top of the list. Milk kefir is ridiculously easy to make. I also make kombucha, which is fun. Go for it!

    1. Thanks, Rachel. I need to read your blog more carefully, you don’t sound 77. You are much further down the path than I am, so I need to cull bits of wisdom from you.

  12. I’d say that aging (physical) is a result of mental patterns that wear you down in relation to time. Using a programming analogy, the software that people run on running on is obsolete and needs to be updated (just not like Apple or Windows).

  13. Well, hi again gang. Jim, your wish is something that I think we all could do with, one, at least in one shot. Anybody here on this thread doesn’t really think that there is an existing “Great Time Machine” (see said Hoax by Keith Laumer) that is going to make a dramatic change in our lives. The other kinds of current things that could present such a change are mostly too dreadful to consider.

    Let’s face it; whatever knowledge, lore or other ancient histories that we could pass on to our descendants have long been replaced by modern standards; aka Public Education, The Internet, Facebook, and Twitter/Instagram and their progeny. I noticed that there aren’t a large number of 40 somethings on this page; perhaps that’s a lack of skill and knowledge on my part. If so , I regret that statement and hope for a resounding response, including bullying to question my potentially wrong statement.

    Assuming my earlier assumptions are not completely false, then I will say this: nobody who fails to question authority will ever know the truth. Nobody who fails to question the authors of the New Truth will ever know the Truth. Only those who question the established Truth will ever know what is really going on.

    And no, I was too young to be part of the Berkeley uprising back in the 70’s. But I was alive back then, and I did see many things good and bad that should be attached to that social uprising.

    It’s sad that the brief moment of questioning of the staid and existing currency of thought back then should have had such a following of disturbed ideas, and then to have let them dissolve into a new reality.

    No, I was never in the mix of the 70’s Hippie/Love/Drug universe. My experimentation occurred long after that.

    Back to the main thread: I cannot see any difference between my parent (still living) and my grandparents (gone since the 40’s-50’s) and my current situation. I have access to better healthcare, although given the miles between us it is not something that is easily handled. Medicare and it’s assistsive services are not the same thing as taking care of one’s Mom.

    Whether or not we will all be happy in our final days is something that only we can know, and hope to ensure.

    My only hope is that I can stay cognizant enough to navigate the twisted and ridiculous details supporting the services available to make sure that my Mom is taken care of.

    As for all those ideas of how well I’m doing at The Beatles age, well that is something I’ll have to worry about down the road.

    Has anybody else noticed that sleeping past about 7 hours is extremely enervating? I could sleep for ten hours, but only in a 6 by 2×2 sequence. And I’m always more tired when I do that…

    But the sleep of Lethe is so lovely…

    1. Jim, I assume that my older audience is due to the fact that I’m old, and my interests are their interests. However, I would like to know how many younger people love reading old science fiction, especially the short stories.

      I only have brief glimpses into the current public education. I know teachers and professors at a school of education. One thing I’ve noticed is modern textbooks are too big. I think we’re trying to cram too much information into young minds. Also, we’re demanding more and more from teachers and I think that’s wrong.

      Another insight into modern education is from watching Jeopardy. I’m always surprised when young contestants know pop culture from my generation, or when contestants of my generation know stuff about current pop culture.

      I’m not sure what we should require people to know. Why is awareness of my generation relevant to modern generations?

      My sleep is all over the place. I have to recharge my batteries at least twice a day with naps. And naps are amazing. They remove all the mental fog.

  14. Ah Jim, you sell yourself short in so many ways. You are a modern-day polymath (something that is mostly unheard of today). I have young friends (extended and non-blooded family friends) who read current and older Sci-Fi, and who are gladly bringing their younkers into the Star Wars world. Some of them are even willing to read older historical works (well, as long as it is entertaining).
    I do believe that there are gaps in today’s “official” education that miss too much about our history and culture, and those gaps sometimes have shown that not everything we know is true (fnords, anyone?). Some have then learned to parse the obvious world around them through military service and through other options (extreme sports, for one).

    These are fine folks, but they do not have the same world views that their parents did and do. I don’t worry about what they can and will do; I worry about what is left for them to be able to do.

    History is not bunk, no matter what Henry Ford said (or didn’t say). Getting one’s history from a single source is of course the most dangerous thing one can do, other than ignoring history all together. American families (at least in the modern parts of America) no longer have the same impact on subsequent generations. The greater cultural forces are driven from without the family structures that were the backbone of our early history. That and Westward Expansion, of course.

    Islands of history, discussion, opinion and ideological contention that exist in a positive atmosphere are some of the most important and meaningful sources of information and enlightenment that exist.

    Your house is one of them.

    Now if only you could get a good publicist, some TweetMeisters and some hot writers to join in…

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