» N.S. Books
October 27, 1997.
"What I call an old man is a person with a smooth, shining crown and a fringe of scattered white hairs, seen in the streets on sunshiny days, stooping as he walks, bearing a cane, moving cautiously and slowly; telling old stories, smiling at present follies, living in a narrow world of dry habits; one that remains waking when others have dropped asleep, and keeps a little night-lamp-flame of life burning year after year, if the lamp is not upset, and there is only a careful hand held round it to prevent puffs of wind from blowing the flame out. That's what I call an old man."
This is what, in 1858, the American physician, professor and man of letters, Oliver Wendell Holmes, called an old man. It is, however, plain that while Holmes survived into his eighties, he, himself, never became an old man.
We cannot help admiring the undaunted cheerfulness with which Holmes met everything to the last. It is said, as a very old man, Holmes visited Stonehenge during which visit one of his companions called out, "Listen, do you hear, the lark is singing!" Holmes, in an attempt to comprehend the object of his companion's exclamation, put his hand to his ear to listen; but, no bird's song did he hear. Holmes, it seems, became deaf in his old age. He explained later on how, having not heard the bird's song, he felt a momentary pang, a very sweet emotion of self-pity which took the sting out of his painful discovery, "that the orchestra of my pleasing life entertainment was unstringing its instruments."
Holmes, too, said, "like peaches and pears, we grow sweet a little while before we decay." Youth gradually leaves and just as gradually we leave behind the feelings of immortality; realizations grow stronger that, while life is fragile, it is -- so, so beautiful. We should learn, like George Santayana, the Spanish born American philosopher, poet and writer, to enjoy our old age.
"... the charm I find in old age - for I was never happier than I am now - comes of having learned to live in the moment, and thereby in eternity; and this means recovering a perpetual youth, since nothing can be fresher than each day as it dawns and changes. When we have no expectations, the actual is a continual free gift, but much more placidly accepted than it could be when we were children; for then the stage was full of trap doors and unimaginable transformations that kept us always alarmed, eager and on the point of tears; whereas now we have wept our tears out, we know what can pop [out] of those trap doors, and what kind of shows these transformations can present; and we remember many of them with affection, and watch the new ones that come with interest and good will, but without false claims for our own future."
Charles Lamb writes of his older years:
"Not childhood alone, but the young man till thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal. He knows it indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility of life; but he brings it not home to himself, any more than in a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing days of December. But now ... I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like misers' farthings. ... I am not content to pass away 'like a weaver's shuttle.' ... I am in love with this green earth, - the face of town and country, - ... Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and Summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, ... I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived, - I and my friends, - to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave. Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me." (Vol. III, p. 177.)
Edward Gibbon, the historian:
"The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years. I shall soon enter into the period which, as the most agreeable of his long life, was selected by the judgement and experience of the sage FONTenelle. His choice is approved by the eloquent historian of nature, who fixes our moral happiness to the mature season in which our passions are supposed to be calmed, our duties fulfilled, our ambition satisfied, our fame and fortune established on a solid basis. In private conversation, that great and amiable man added the weight of his own experience; and this autumnal felicity might be exemplified in the lives of Voltaire, Hume, and many other men of letters. I am far more inclined to embrace than to dispute this comfortable doctrine. I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.
And, on that note, Gibbon had ended his Autobiography.
"The proportion of a part to the whole is the only standard by which we can measure the length of our existence. At the age of twenty, one year is a tenth, perhaps, of the time which has elapsed within our consciousness and memory: at the age of fifty, it is no more than the fortieth, and this relative value continues to decrease till the last sands are shaken by the hand of death. This reasoning may seem metaphysical; but on a trial it will be found satisfactory and just. The warm desires, the long expectations of youth, are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world: they are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain; while the few who have climbed the summit aspire to descend or expect to fall. In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing."
As one becomes older and older, one typically feels, more and more, that the world is going its own way: not yours, or mine, or any man's. Gradually, it seems, we grow content with the way things are and become inclined to give up the struggle to change that which cannot be changed. As we become older, the normal course, I suspect, is to realize that much of our struggle to ascend the tree of life leads through and across the thorns and rough edges with little fruit to be had and the best of it out of reach on flimsy branches that will not support us. A growing appreciation of the pettiness of human struggles leads in the same growing fashion to, as one old author put it, "a respect for simple labors, a thankfulness for simple pleasures, a sympathy with simple people ..." Thus, as we grow older, we consider life, itself, as an ever-increasing identification with Nature.
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October, 1997 (2021)