Aging is the process of learning to appreciate greyness. It is only a gentle irony that our hair takes on that hue. The things children appreciate and learn about are defined by clarity: a color, a taste, an emotion. As time passes and experiences pile up, red becomes oxblood, sweetness and emotions take shape by their intensity.
My nearly-seven son cares not for fiction. He wants facts in books. The clarity has grown in scope, but not in complexity. This will continue until at some point he will become old.
That’s where I sit: on old side of things. You become old when your experiential knowledge gives you the ability to discern facts from things that purport to be facts; and you apprehend or comprehend that the act of knowing is equal parts belief and agenda.
So I no longer demand clarity. My scope has narrowed. I know that no matter how good that beer might be, I’ll enjoy bourbon more. I know that there is no point trying to convince people who hold fundamental positions on a topic to change their minds. I have reached the limits of clarity and move cautiously in the vast mist that exists between facts, and between knowledge and reality. Red is a gradient, flavors are combined, emotions are deep and savored. I understand how it is frustrating to the not-old to see what appears to be a lack of concern, or a concern with the unsubstantial. The frequency of the old is longer, both experientially and relativistically.
To be old is to be a ship happily lost in fog, savoring the subtlety of the phantoms that flit about the corners of our eyes, that, when we were young, we once mistook for friends.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
My mom gave me a framed version of this poem on my 16th birthday. I wasn’t a man then, so I didn’t really understand it. Later, when I thought I understood it, I disagreed with it on all points. It sat in the closet in my old room until I turned 30, at which time my mom gave it to me again. I flipped it over and on the back was the note she’d written my for my 16th birthday, the note she’d written for my 30th, and the handwritten poem my Grandma wrote for me on my 16th. Reading “If” at 30 is yet again a different experience. Now I feel like I understand it; now I strive for these listed virtues.
Now it hangs in my son’s room, and I hope as he grows that he will feel the same ways I’ve felt about it over the years.
There has been a lot swirling around my head lately; some general themes include: foresight & hindsight, the evolution of the human capacity for change, aging, empathy, the very different implications & responsibilities inherent in dating as a father, and why my dog farts uncontrollably when my son plays with his toy helicopter (pronounced, and this is very important: “hellapocker”).
So I’ve been thinking too much to write, much less coherently. So I’m going to try and catch up a bit, right now.
Foresight & Hindsight
When I was really little, I had a book about Thomas Jefferson and the value of foresight. Although I’m not sure I fully grasped the concept at the time, it stuck with me. It’s something I consider to be a relative strength of mine. I can look ahead long-term and see what the path I want to follow entails and act accordingly. I figure that the better and more practiced your foresight, the less it will differ from the 20/20 of hindsight. I also figure that not very many people understand the value of foresight or are capable of it. Or, I’m an arrogant dick.
Capacity Changes & Aging
In terms of interest, life seems to be a progression from the general to the specific. A child is interested in everything (except a varied diet), an adolescent is interested mostly in the things they like, and in trying things they haven’t yet been able to do. An adult tends toward the enjoyment of things they have established as life-long passions, and loses interest in trying new things. I’m speaking in grand generalities, here. Wrapping it all together with the following…
I think empathy can encompass more than just sharing in another’s feelings; including aspects of foresight & reflection upon the capacity changes that aging brings about. As aggravating as it is to be an adolescent who feels patronized by “you’ll understand when you’re older”, what is seen as condescension is actually nostalgia for (and therefore empathy with) the feelings & capacities of adolescence & childhood. Foresight is a kind of preparational empathy or an empathy with a future self; I look ahead and in the act of judging possible outcomes, place myself in a certain positions and reverse engineer the best path to reach the place I want to end up.
Glad I’ve cleared that up for myself.
I’ve been thirty for a couple of days now, but as I sit here watching The Return of the King & eating pizza rolls, life doesn’t seem that much different now than when I was 15. It is, of course. I’ve always been someone who wants to be taken more seriously than my age would indicate. Somehow I feel that now that I’ve completed 3 decades, some allotment of dignity or respect is my due. I’m perfectly aware that dignity & respect are earned, not bestowed, but there’s not much opportunity to successfully work for either when you’re in your twenties.
Now that I’m thirty, there’s nothing left but to be serious and mature all of the time, for the rest of my life.