Well, this won’t do at all. I awoke this morning to discover that I’ve turned forty, and I haven’t the slightest idea how this happened. Last I remember, I was nineteen, and setting off to choose my courses at university.
Forty! The most shocking thing, perhaps, is the state of decrepitude into which my body has fallen in the past ten years. Always prone to rather substantive fluctuations in body mass, I now find that the fluctuations have ceased. In their place comes a pattern of steady change, and all in one direction. Hairs sprout from alarming places, except in the one place where I want them to be. My teeth? Worn down to nubs and now crowned with porcelain. I have a six pack, true, but I bought it at the LCBO. I get tired walking up stairs. My feet hurt and my hips ache. Were I a dog, and were you a farmer, it would be getting to the point where you’d be thinking, yup, pretty soon we’ll have to take the ol’ feller out back of the barn and shoot him.
Well, maybe not just yet. The 90th Psalm grants us that the number of our years shall be “threescore and ten” or, “by reason of strength” fourscore, which I rather prefer. (Must do those push-ups.) Still, this upper extreme constitutes a mere twenty-nine thousand days, and by virtue of pure mathematics alone, I am confronted with the rather depressing possibility that there are fewer days ahead than behind.
If there’s one thing that has, for me, indicated the passage of time, it is the growing incomprehensibility of the world that my students inhabit. More and more I find myself asking why they dress that way (why wear the ball cap and the hood up while you’re inside?); why they seem to have been genetically engineered to be one with their laptops and cellphones (what could be so important that you must text at this moment?); and why they call that crap “music” (back in my day, songs had something called “a melody”). In short, I’ve begun to wonder what every generation in the history of the world has: what’s wrong with the kids these days? So, there it is. I’ve become a grump. A middle-aged fogey. A curmudgeon.
Still, the passage has time has not been without its advantages. There’s a famous line in Tennyson, “Though much is taken, much abides”, but this implies a steady erosion against which we, like Ulysses, must strive and not yield. But surely there are qualities of mind that only come with age. Knowledge easily is gained by anyone willing to crack a book (“Lend me an hour a day,” Will Durrant once said, “And I will make a philosopher and a scholar out of you.”) Wisdom, on the other hand, is something that comes with experience. The difference? Knowing that, too, is the product of experience, and it is something I did not know when I was 30. Knowledge is when you know something. Wisdom is knowing when to say it.
I mentioned before, how I biked up to the university shortly after my 19th birthday to meet the registrar at the college where I had just been accepted. Everyone who attended Huron in those days remembers the registrar – a formidable woman who left an impression upon a generation of students as great as any made by any faculty member of that era – and I still recall retreating backwards into my chair as, with crooked finger jabbing the air, she recited Shaw’s dictum that youth, a wonderful thing, is wasted on children. “You’re not here to socialize,” she said. “This is about your life. Don’t miss out on this opportunity.”
Indeed. Well, I’m not sure I would ever tell my students that they ought not to socialize. My own happiest moments as a teacher have been the result of seeing lasting friendships form among students – that is something that will outlast every lesson taught and even those few that actually are learned. But it is also true that, aged 18 or 19, my students do not yet realize that time is the most precious asset they possess, and that the world of learning is too fertile to mark time.
So, forty. I will embrace thee with all the enthusiasm of embracing an in-law. And it is tempting to quote Tennyson again: “Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” But I think my grandmother put it best when she that the thing about aging is that it’s better than the alternative.