Like any physical object used regularly, human bodies wear out; joints lose cartilage, cataracts develop, muscles get weaker, organs lose efficiency, healing happens slower, bones get more brittle, and memory…oh yes, memory gets worse. Now I remember.
The Watcher, the self-conscious “I” that some neuroscientists believe is a ‘controlled hallucination’ observes such decline but cannot stop it. The Watcher can try to influence decline by changing habits and routines – taking supplements, eating differently, exercising regularly, meditating, cultivating patience, altering beliefs, having surgery, seeking counseling, and so forth – but unless one suddenly drops dead, as we age, we inevitably take up residence in the City of Decline.
Some of us move to Decline sooner than others. When I was walking the other day, my 92-year-old friend John waved at me while riding his bicycle down First Street West. To top it off, he was not wearing a helmet. Now that’s confidence. Personally, I stopped riding a bike five years ago after nearly getting sideswiped, but my abundance of caution didn’t stop me from tripping on the sidewalk a week ago and skinning my knee for the first time since I was eleven. At least my dear departed mother didn’t have to try to patch my pants.
I’m thinking of the riddle of the Sphinx, who famously asked the question, “What has four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” and if not answered correctly killed his victim. It’s always three in the evening in the City of Decline. The experience of aging is universal no matter what culture, era, or location; like shit, decline happens.
Then again, according to Einstein, the past, present, and future are all happening at once. Even though The Watcher’s narrative is linear, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, depending upon one’s motion in the universe, time is relative. The latest images from the Webb Space Telescope are showing us 13.5-billion-year-old events right now.
The Watcher is the organizing center of our perceptual universe, at least that’s how it seems ever since Descartes declared “Cogito Ergo Sum – I think, therefore I am.” Having thus subjectified self, everything else is objectified and subject to observation, even our own acts of observation, which today we call ‘mindfulness.’ Mindfulness, too, can lead us down a rabbit hole. When we watch the watcher, we’re watching what?
Entropy is another name for The City of Decline, but like time, that too may be an illusion. All things, say Hwa Yen Buddhists, are simultaneously integrating and disintegrating, becoming, and dissolving; yet, these are false dichotomies, really, like birth and death. There’s just process. Even the Big Bang has given up the ghost in preference to the theory of an ongoing Universe, a process with no beginning and no end.
In its way, The Watcher is timeless, too. My past is readily available in my present, just as the knee I skinned at eleven is the same one I skinned at 73. Not really, of course. Every skin cell in my knee is relatively new, no more than twenty-eight to forty-two days old. What is the same is The Watcher, which until I lose my mind, controls the hallucination that ‘I am’ just well enough to manage my life while I move to The City of Decline, where, by the way, vacancies are always available.
Painting by Chester Arnold – ‘Hard Rain’