Wake up. Eat. Go to work. Eat. Come home. Eat. Watch a movie. Eat. Go to sleep. Dream about eating. Wake up and do it again. Repeat for the next 25,000 days or so. Take a child and ask them about their hopes and dreams and expectations. Ask them again at fourteen. Then at twenty-one, twenty-eight, and onward, once every seven years for the rest of their lives. 56 Up is the story of us, of life, of change, and of accepting the successes and failures that are unavoidable if you are lucky enough to keep getting older. The eighth installment in the series continues its amazing report on the lives of a particular group of individuals whose experiences growing up and, for some, out of the United Kingdom are among the most universally relatable.
Seven-year-old’s are usually not very preoccupied with existential thoughts. This one wants to be a firefighter; this one a policeman, this one a singer, or an actor, or a famous soccer player or whatever. I know I wasn’t concerned with thoughts about my time on Earth when I was seven. So, it’s interesting to ask the most perplexing of questions to these children, questions about happiness and success and the meaning of life, questions that humans have grappled with throughout the eons, and then recording the answers for perpetual posterity, and watching as a child grows and develops and twists themselves to fit into the shape that life has allowed this particular cog to inhabit. The children and young adults who swear off marriage in one installment are married with children in the next, and then divorced perhaps two installments later. And life continues to move on. For all of the participants in this series, life continues to trundle onward, like a tiny ant, faceless and indistinct amongst its brethren as viewed from the clouds, but down, down, down onto your knees and the ant becomes a singular force, steadily moving forward, but without the capacity to see beyond its realm. We may enjoy a greater illusion of freedom, but the rules remain basically the same for all creatures. Survive, procreate, and die.
My father told me a quote the other day. I can’t remember who he attributed it to, perhaps the Dalai Lama or some other inspirational figure, but it doesn’t really matter. The person in question was asked about, the “Meaning of Life,” the “Purpose of It All,” the “Why Are We Here,” the “What Is Happiness” – that kind of thing. His simple answer – happiness is when the natural order of life is fulfilled. The grandfather dies before the father, and the father dies before the son. This is the natural order of life. It is unnatural for a father to outlive his son. There was nothing about fulfilling your potential or choosing the correct career path or education or money; just a simple declaration, a simple hope that life proceeds in the most natural way.
I think about time a lot these days. Not only because I am not currently gainfully employed and I have plenty of time to think and let my thoughts wander down the blackened hallways of my mind, ever so often stopping or slowing, wiping away the dust and the grime from a clouded window and focusing my eyes to better peer through the mist at what lies within, but also, because I’m twenty-five, and at twenty-five everyone/most people/some people/one seem(s) to be often wondering what the fuck is going on.
I watched my sister marry her fiancé this past weekend, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kinds of thoughts were revolving through the heads of the family and friends and spectators who spent the afternoon and evening celebrating their new union. Sure, happiness is hopefully the first reaction to news of a marriage, and I have to expect it would be the prevailing emotion based on the number of smiles witnessed and the fact that probably every single person had a great time that day, not the least of which was my sister and her new husband. But as I gave the skeptical inquisitor, who resides inside my brain, time to sweep through the onlookers, storylines long and convoluted spurted to the top of my consciousness, like watching a time lapsed video of flowers popping from bulbs to blooming in the springtime.
This man, caught with half a smile, for half a second, seethes with internal turmoil. The girl of his dreams, my sister, has, at last, been taken, “off the market.” He never had a chance with her, but even if he had a chance he knows it would have been for naught because of whom she is and because of whom he is. They are incompatible, oh, he knows it, he knew it long, long ago when they first met, but it still burns. When he looks at her, even after all this time, it still burns, and he hates that it burns. He hates her for being unable to love him, he loves her for being unable to love him, and throughout it all he stands to the side and grits his teeth and smiles a smile that doesn’t quite extend to the eyes that long ago forgot what it was like to stare upon something that could reflect his own love back to him. His mask has hardened until it becomes the only face he recognizes. He stands frozen in time, swallowing his lustful appeals and reminds himself to readjust his mask from time to time. He can’t see the woman in front of him, he sees an apparition of the past, something lost long ago, too long ago for her to follow his trail of bread crumbs or for her to even care if she happened to hear the “crunch” of a breaking crouton underfoot.
What about this young woman who stands to the side with the wide eyes of a doe caught in the headlights of an oncoming car? A cold chill slips under her dress and tip toes its way up her spine, the hairs on her neck rise to attention and her body gives a nearly imperceptible shiver. She stares at the couple in the center of attention with glassy, unfocused eyes and a slightly bent head, as if she is trying to slightly increase the volume of the proceedings. Does she wonder about the particulars of her own storybook wedding and her own storybook “white knight,” does she ask herself about the “when” and the “will” of the two coinciding? She bites the inside of her cheek as a tear slips out and rolls down around the contour of her face and drops softly into the grasses beside her open-toed heels.
There’s a divorcee here. There’s a divorcee there. There’s a soon-to-be divorced couple bickering in the shade. Do they wish to impart their advice on the couple in question? Perhaps a measure of the Medusa-like trials the honeymooners may face or that the amputation of one head may result in the growth of two more?
What about the couples who change the dynamics of a room simply by stepping through the doorframe; the fragrance of contentment announces their presence to the crowd, the scent blanketing upon the heads of the less fortunate. Do these couples recognize themselves in the relationship currently under examination? Can they recognize fingernail cracks in the foundation? Can they recognize the beginning of the end?
It’s not required to see 56 Up. It’s not an absolutely, positively, quintessentially essential viewing experience, but that’s only because we are all already living 56 Up. The ebb and flow of a person’s life is profoundly interesting, but there is much more at stake with our own lives, our own pasts, our own futures – looking through past family videos would result in a similar glimpse into one’s state of being at a singular point in time, although, of course, less dramatically edited. 56 Up is a stunning and remarkable look into the lives of all of us. Where are we going? Where did we come from? Where are we now? What will our children look like? What were our parents like when they were our age? Every human is a unique specimen, a strange cocktail of physical characteristics, emotional depth, and psychological curiosities that is unrepeatable. Every possible moment and every possible brain contortion will occur uniquely once and only once, and yet our existences are still infinitely relatable to one another. The fact that anyone can find anyone to enjoy a lasting, fulfilling relationship together is remarkable given all of the variables and challenges and desires and distractions that inhabit the modern world. “Rare” doesn’t even begin to draw close to the improbability of it all. Perhaps “near impossible” would be more apt. But certainly the hope remains, and we slip through the frames of life looking toward a climactic release. If you can find it, well, that certainly sounds like a good reason for a celebration to me.
Congratulations to my Sis and my new Bro-in-law!