For many people — not just activists like Snowden or professional athletes — life crests early. But it doesn’t end there. It goes on, burdened by a summit that can never be reached again, which one can gaze upon only by turning back. This is not to say that good and worthwhile things will not happen to them, and for a fortunate few there will be other, higher summits. For many, however, those earlier moments will be a quiet haunting, a reminder of what has been and cannot be again.
We might think of these kinds of lives, lives whose trajectories have early peaks and then fall off, as exceptional. In a way they are. But in another way they are not. There is something precisely in the extremity of these lives that brings out a phenomenon that appears more subtly for the rest of us. It appears in different times and different places and under different guises, but it is there for us nevertheless…
… A certain period in the arc of one’s life yields a meaning that illuminates it, makes it burn more brightly than perhaps one might have thought or had the right to expect, and then is over. One continues to live, but something has gone missing, it has gotten lost. And what is lost, what is missing, remains nevertheless, tugging at one’s world with its absence.
Others will object to these reflections from another angle. There are, I will be reminded, riches in many lives that do not constitute a peak or a summit — friendships, love relationships, meaningful careers. In their stability, these seem more nearly immune to the ravages of a trajectory of early peaks followed by endless valleys. This is certainly true, but it neglects an important element of those quieter riches: they are not themselves steady. Love has its own peaks and valleys, and once past a certain peak one cannot know whether there will be another one. Friendships do as well. We understand this because we all have friends with whom memories are the central point of contact. These are defunct friendships, pointed toward a time that, once vibrant, no longer exists. The same can be said of careers. Even the most meaningful careers leave one wondering, after the exhaustion of a project or the reward of recognition, will it ever be this good again?