Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/22/2011

. . . the horizon of common experience and acquaintances. . .

Memento mori, by Alexander Mair, 1605

Memento mori, by Alexander Mair, 1605

On June 19 I had a nagging in the back of my mind that, to get ideas for a fiction piece I’m writing, I needed to find a couple of personal memory pieces I wrote some time ago. I remembered the subjects of those writings—one about a motorcycle gang staying at a motel where I was staying, the other about going through family photos to find a photo of my mother. As with most of my old writings (you can imagine how many documents are saved on my desktop, some posted, most not) the documents are named by subject matter, not by date, so I had to be persistent to find those two.

I found them. One is dated June 19, 2007, and the other June 22, 2007. The first was pondering my mother’s imminent death, the other reflecting on making the service leaflet for her funeral. She died June 20, 2007. It’s difficult for me to believe, so I don’t expect anyone else to believe that I had not consciously remembered that anniversary until I found those two writings.

Between 2004 and 2010 my life partner, my ex-wife and friend of 42 years, my mother, and my brother-in-law died. Three of my closest friends died. The only academician with whom I had a close personal and emotional bond died. More recently two of my most constant friends moved away at retirement. The church of which I was organist closed. In spite of my belief or unbelief in that church’s “theology,” the people were an inestimably important part of my family of friends.

Shall I continue my litany? I suppose this seems like self-pity, but it’s a factual statement, and everyone who has reached 66 years of age understands this reality. Everyone.

I have read a great deal recently about aging, loss, and grief. I am often surprised to find articles about the “aging” or “elders” or “seniors” that are about persons 65 and older, surprised because “old people” are those 20 years older than I am. I may be over 65, but I’m not one of the aging people in such articles. If you are not surprised to find yourself in such articles (that is, not yet 65) you might stop reading here.

We all suffer grief and loss, but they become more frequent and (perhaps) more intense as we get older. If we draw up a list of important experiences for a person whose life is flourishing

. . .  grief at the death of a friend or relative might well come close to the top. Grief will be high on the list because a flourishing life will typically involve emotional commitments [that] inevitably carry the risk of bereavement and grief. Moreover . . . the pain of grief not only reflects, but also calls our attention to the importance that our commitments hold for us: through grief, as much as through joy, we perceive what matters in our lives (1).

Through grief, as much as through joy, we perceive what matters in our lives. What matters is what gives meaning to our lives (that seems obvious enough to be a cliché, but perhaps not). I experience commitment to family and friends, and I have experienced loss of those relationships as a matter of course, as a reality over which I have no control. That inevitable process gives meaning to my life because meaning is

. . . an organization of experience which enables us to identify those events which matter to us, relate them to previous experiences, and determine how we should respond to them (2).

I have lived alone for seven years (since my partner died). During that time, my circle of “attachments” (3) has diminished somewhat precipitously. The resulting amount of time I spend alone is ambiguous—confusing. I don’t know much of the time how to “distinguish between loneliness, ‘aloneness’, isolation and lack of social support.” Much of the time (such as when I’m writing) I want to be alone. Aloneness

is not always viewed negatively by the individual. Furthermore, a person may experience loneliness while in the company of others. While loneliness by definition is an undesirable experience, aloneness or solitude may be desirable fostering creativity, facilitating self-reflection, self-regulation, concentration and learning(4).

Thomas Rentsch

Thomas Rentsch

However, self-reflection can be dangerous, especially in solitude, without benefit of corroboration, because it can easily become distortion, distortion of memory, distortion of present reality. In the film, Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001), the central character Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) says, “memory’s unreliable . . . it changes the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation. . . and irrelevant if you have the facts” (5).

Memories, when I think about them in isolation, are often distortions, interpretations of the way I want things to have been. But even worse than the possibility of distorting memories is the possibility of anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories—Leonard Shelby’s condition. Both my attempts to remember past experience and my hope of organizing “present experience which enables [me] to identify those events which matter to [me]” are problematic in isolation from others.

Thomas Rentsch, Professor of Practical Philosophy and Ethics at Dresden University, writes that, “In the tradition of the ethics of the good life, something else is clear. We become ourselves in a medium of communicative praxis through a common life with others.” He goes on to say that the loss of someone close to us “is one of the most difficult existential tasks for human beings to come to grips with” because

the familiar context of life and ordinary things, the horizon of common experience and acquaintances, has disintegrated [and] becoming-oneself appears as an isolation and is accompanied by becoming estranged from the world (6).

I do not (yet) feel myself growing old. Those people over 65 who are the subjects of articles on aging are not my contemporaries (?!). It’s obvious I’ve begun to experience the kinds of losses Carolyn Price writes of, but one does not have to be old to have those experiences. I am not (yet) old, but I have reached an age that

in many respects provides the chance for development of ethical insights that are less easily gained in earlier stages of life. One is able to intensely experience the finitude and the fragility of life. Man’s dependency on communication and solidarity is manifold and can be experienced through loss (7).

Meaning, loss, grief, memory, solitude, “communication and solidarity.” Concepts confusing and difficult. Perhaps they become clearer in light of an obvious detail in Memento I’ve never seen discussed by any critic. Memory is not Leonard Shelby’s problem. “Memento” is not a trinket to help him remember. It is one word of the title of the short story by Christopher Nolan’s brother on which the film is based, Memento mori. It’s Latin for “remember your mortality.” Not necessarily a function of old age.
(1) Price, Carolyn. “The Rationality of Grief.” Inquiry 53.1 (2010): 20-40.
(2) Marris, Peter. “The social construction of uncertainty.” In C. M. Parks, J. Stevenson-Hinde & P. Marris (Eds.), Attachment Across the Lifespan. London: Routledge (1991): 77-90. Quoted in Thomas, Cecilia L., and Harriet L. Cohen. “Understanding Spiritual Meaning Making with Older Adults.” Journal of Theory Construction & Testing 10.2 (2006): 65-70.
An enormous body of literature is available on “attachment theory” which most of us who are not psychologists or sociologists know nothing about.  It’s not a “pop psychology” subject yet. The theory itself is fairly obvious: it’s the study of how we make and lose emotional attachments with others. See, for example, a discussion of the application of the theory to aging persons in: O’Luanaigh, Conor and Brian A. Lawlor. “Loneliness and the Health of Older People.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 23 (2008): 1213-1221.
(4) O’Luanaigh and Lawlor 1214.
(5) Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. Newmarket Films. 2001.
(6) Rentsch, Thomas. “Aging as becoming oneself: A philosophical ethics of late life.” Journal of Aging Studies 11.4 (1997): 263.
(7). Rentsch, op. cit.


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