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On Growing Older Post by :johno Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :April 2011 Read :2204

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On Growing Older

The sun flares red behind leafless elms and battlemented towers as I come in from a lonely walk beside the river; above the chimney- tops hangs a thin veil of drifting smoke, blue in the golden light. The games in the Common are just coming to an end; a stream of long-coated spectators sets towards the town, mingled with the parti-coloured, muddied figures of the players. I have been strolling half the afternoon along the river bank, watching the boats passing up and down; hearing the shrill cries of coxes, the measured plash of oars, the rhythmical rattle of rowlocks, intermingled at intervals with the harsh grinding of the chain- ferries. Five-and-twenty years ago I was rowing here myself in one of these boats, and I do not wish to renew the experience. I cannot conceive why and in what moment of feeble good-nature or misapplied patriotism I ever consented to lend a hand. I was not a good oar, and did not become a better one; I had no illusions about my performance, and any momentary complacency was generally sternly dispelled by the harsh criticism of the coach on the bank, when we rested for a moment to receive our meed of praise or blame. But though I have no sort of wish to repeat the process, to renew the slavery which I found frankly and consistently intolerable, I find myself looking on at the cheerful scene with an amusement in which mingles a shadow of pain, because I feel that I have parted with something, a certain buoyancy and elasticity of body, and perhaps spirit, of which I was not conscious at the time, but which I now realize that I must have possessed. It is with an admiration mingled with envy that I see these youthful, shapely figures, bare- necked and bare-kneed, swinging rhythmically past. I watch a brisk crew lift a boat out of the water by a boat-house; half of them duck underneath to get hold of the other side, and they march up the grating gravel in a solemn procession. I see a pair of cheerful young men, released from tubbing, execute a wild and inconsequent dance upon the water's edge; I see a solemn conference of deep import between a stroke and a coach. I see a neat, clean-limbed young man go airily up to a well-earned tea, without, I hope, a care, or an anxiety in his mind, expecting and intending to spend an agreeable evening. "Oh, Jones of Trinity, oh, Smith of Queen's," I think to myself, "tua si bona noris! Make the best of the good time, my boy, before you go off to the office, or the fourth-form room, or the country parish! Live virtuously, make honest friends, read the good old books, lay up a store of kindly recollections, of firelit rooms in venerable courts, of pleasant talks, of innocent festivities. Very fresh is the cool morning air, very fragrant is the newly-lighted bird's-eye, very lively is the clink of knives and forks, very keen is the savour of the roast beef that floats up to the dark rafters of the College Hall. But the days are short and the terms are few; and do not forget to be a sensible as well as a good-humoured young man!"

Thackeray, in a delightful ballad, invites a pretty page to wait till he comes to forty years: well, I have waited--indeed, I have somewhat overshot the mark--and to-day the sight of all this brisk life, going on just as it used to do, with the same insouciance and the same merriment, makes me wish to reflect, to gather up the fragments, to see if it is all loss, all declension, or whether there is something left, some strength in what remains behind.

I have a theory that one ought to grow older in a tranquil and appropriate way, that one ought to be perfectly contented with one's time of life, that amusements and pursuits ought to alter naturally and easily, and not be regretfully abandoned. One ought not to be dragged protesting from the scene, catching desperately at every doorway and balustrade; one should walk off smiling. It is easier said than done. It is not a pleasant moment when a man first recognizes that he is out of place in the football field, that he cannot stoop with the old agility to pick up a skimming stroke to cover-point, that dancing is rather too heating to be decorous, that he cannot walk all day without undue somnolence after dinner, or rush off after a heavy meal without indigestion. These are sad moments which we all of us reach, but which are better laughed over than fretted over. And a man who, out of sheer inability to part from boyhood, clings desperately and with apoplectic puffings to these things is an essentially grotesque figure. To listen to young men discussing one of these my belated contemporaries, and to hear one enforcing on another the amusement to be gained from watching the old buffer's manoeuvres, is a lesson against undue youthfulness. One can indeed give amusement without loss of dignity, by being open to being induced to join in such things occasionally in an elderly way, without any attempt to disguise deficiencies. But that is the most that ought to be attempted. Perhaps the best way of all is to subside into the genial and interested looker-on, to be ready to applaud the game you cannot play, and to admire the dexterity you cannot rival.

What then, if any, are the gains that make up for the lack of youthful prowess? They are, I can contentedly say, many and great. In the first place, there is the loss of a quality which is productive of an extraordinary amount of pain among the young, the quality of self-consciousness. How often was one's peace of mind ruined by gaucherie, by shyness, by the painful consciousness of having nothing to say, and the still more painful consciousness of having said the wrong thing in the wrong way! Of course, it was all immensely exaggerated. If one went into chapel, for instance, with a straw hat, which one had forgotten to remove, over a surplice, one had the feeling for several days that it was written in letters of fire on every wall. I was myself an ardent conversationalist in early years, and, with the charming omniscience of youth, fancied that my opinion was far better worth having than the opinions of Dons encrusted with pedantry and prejudice. But if I found myself in the society of these petrified persons, by the time that I had composed a suitable remark, the slender opening had already closed, and my contribution was either not uttered at all, or hopelessly belated in its appearance. Or some deep generalization drawn from the dark backward of my vast experience would be produced, and either ruthlessly ignored or contemptuously corrected by some unsympathetic elder of unyielding voice and formed opinions. And then there was the crushing sense, at the conclusion of one of these interviews, of having been put down as a tiresome and heavy young man. I fully believed in my own liveliness and sprightliness, but it seemed an impossible task to persuade my elders that these qualities were there. A good-natured, elderly friend used at times to rally me upon my shyness, and say that it all came from thinking too much about myself. It was as useless as if one told a man with a toothache that it was mere self-absorption that made him suffer. For I have no doubt that the disease of self-consciousness is incident to intelligent youth. Marie Bashkirtseff, in the terrible self-revealing journals which she wrote, describes a visit that she paid to some one who had expressed an interest in her and a desire to see her. She says that as she passed the threshold of the room she breathed a prayer, "O God, make me worth seeing!" How often used one to desire to make an impression, to make oneself felt and appreciated!

Well, all that uneasy craving has left me. I no longer have any particular desire for or expectation of being impressive. One likes, of course, to feel fresh and lively; but whereas in the old days I used to enter a circle with the intention of endeavouring to be felt, of giving pleasure and interest, I now go in the humble hope of receiving either. The result is that, having got rid to a great extent of this pompous and self-regarding attitude of mind, I not only find myself more at ease, but I also find other people infinitely more interesting. Instead of laying one's frigate alongside of another craft with the intention of conducting a boarding expedition, one pays a genial visit by means of the long- boat with all the circumstance of courtesy and amiability. instead of desiring to make conquests, I am glad enough to be tolerated. I dare, too, to say what I think, not alert for any symptoms of contradiction, but fully aware that my own point of view is but one of many, and quite prepared to revise it. In the old days I demanded agreement; I am now amused by divergence. In the old days I desired to convince; I am now only too thankful to be convinced of error and ignorance. I now no longer shrink from saying that I know nothing of a subject; in old days I used to make a pretence of omniscience, and had to submit irritably to being tamely unmasked. It seems to me that I must have been an unpleasant young man enough, but I humbly hope that I was not so disagreeable as might appear.

Another privilege of advancing years is the decreasing tyranny of convention. I used to desire to do the right thing, to know the right people, to play the right games. I did not reflect whether it was worth the sacrifice of personal interest; it was all-important to be in the swim. Very gradually I discovered that other people troubled their heads very little about what one did; that the right people were often the most tiresome and the most conventional, and that the only games which were worth playing were the games which one enjoyed. I used to undergo miseries in staying at uncongenial houses, in accepting shooting invitations when I could not shoot, in going to dances because the people whom I knew were going. Of course one has plenty of disagreeable duties to perform in any case; but I discovered gradually that to adopt the principle of doing disagreeable things which were supposed to be amusing and agreeable was to misunderstand the whole situation. Now, if I am asked to stay at a tiresome house, I refuse; I decline invitations to garden parties and public dinners and dances, because I know that they will bore me; and as to games, I never play them if I can help, because I find that they do not entertain me. Of course there are occasions when one is wanted to fill a gap, and then it is the duty of a Christian and a gentleman to conform, and to do it with a good grace. Again, I am not at the mercy of small prejudices, as I used to be. As a young man, if I disliked the cut of a person's whiskers or the fashion of his clothes, if I considered his manner to be abrupt or unpleasing, if I was not interested in his subjects, I set him down as an impossible person, and made no further attempt to form acquaintance.

Now I know that these are superficial things, and that a kind heart and an interesting personality are not inconsistent with boots of a grotesque shape and even with mutton-chop whiskers. In fact, I think that small oddities and differences have grown to have a distinct value, and form a pleasing variety. If a person's manner is unattractive, I often find that it is nothing more than a shyness or an awkwardness which disappears the moment that familiarity is established. My standard is, in fact, lower, and I am more tolerant. I am not, I confess, wholly tolerant, but my intolerance is reserved for qualities and not for externals. I still fly swiftly from long-winded, pompous, and contemptuous persons; but if their company is unavoidable, I have at least learnt to hold my tongue. The other day I was at a country-house where an old and extremely tiresome General laid down the law on the subject of the Mutiny, where he had fought as a youthful subaltern. I was pretty sure that he was making the most grotesque misstatements, but I was not in a position to contradict them. Next the General was a courteous, weary old gentleman, who sate with his finger-tips pressed together, smiling and nodding at intervals. Half-an-hour later we were lighting our candles. The General strode fiercely up to bed, leaving a company of yawning and dispirited men behind. The old gentleman came up to me and, as he took a light, said with an inclination of his head in the direction of the parting figure, "The poor General is a good deal misinformed. I didn't choose to say anything, but I know something about the subject, because I was private secretary to the Secretary for War."

That was the right attitude, I thought, for the gentlemanly philosopher; and I have learnt from my old friend the lesson not to choose to say anything if a turbulent and pompous person lays down the law on subjects with which I happen to be acquainted.

Again, there is another gain that results from advancing years. I think it is true that there were sharper ecstasies in youth, keener perceptions, more passionate thrills; but then the mind also dipped more swiftly and helplessly into discouragement, dreariness, and despair. I do not think that life is so rapturous, but it certainly is vastly more interesting. When I was young there were an abundance of things about which I did not care. I was all for poetry and art; I found history tedious, science tiresome, politics insupportable. Now I may thankfully say it is wholly different. The time of youth was the opening to me of many doors of life. Sometimes a door opened upon a mysterious and wonderful place, an enchanted forest, a solemn avenue, a sleeping glade; often, too, it opened into some dusty work-a-day place, full of busy forms bent over intolerable tasks, whizzing wheels, dark gleaming machinery, the din of the factory and the workshop. Sometimes, too, a door would open into a bare and melancholy place, a hillside strewn with stones, an interminable plain of sand; worst of all, a place would sometimes be revealed which was full of suffering, anguish, and hopeless woe, shadowed with fears and sins. From such prospects I turned with groans unutterable; but the air of the accursed place would hang about me for days. These surprises, these strange surmises, crowded in fast upon me. How different the world was from what the careless forecast of boyhood had pictured it! How strange, how beautiful, and yet how terrible! As life went on the beauty increased, and a calmer, quieter beauty made itself revealed; in youth I looked for strange, impressive, haunted beauties, things that might deeply stir and move; but year by year a simpler, sweeter, healthier kind of beauty made itself felt; such beauty as lies on the bare, lightly washed, faintly tinted hillside of winter, all delicate greens and browns, so far removed from the rich summer luxuriance, and yet so austere, so pure. I grew to love different books too. In youth one demanded a generous glow, a fire of passion, a strongly tinged current of emotion; but by degrees came the love of sober, subdued reflection, a cooler world in which, if one could not rest, one might at least travel equably and gladly, with a far wider range of experience, a larger, if a fainter, hope. I grew to demand less of the world, less of Nature, less of people; and, behold, a whole range of subtler and gentler emotions came into sight, like the blue hills of the distance, pure and low. The whole movement of the world, past and present, became intelligible and clear. I saw the humanity that lies behind political and constitutional questions, the strong, simple forces that move like a steady stream behind the froth and foam of personality. If in youth I believed that personality and influence could sway and mould the world, in later years I have come to see that the strongest and fiercest characters are only the river- wrack, the broken boughs, the torn grasses that whirl and spin in the tongue of the creeping flood, and that there is a dim resistless force behind them that marches on unheeding and drives them in the forefront of the inundation. Things that had seemed drearily theoretical, dry, axiomatic, platitudinal, showed themselves to be great generalizations from a torrent of human effort and mortal endeavour. And thus all the mass of detail and human relation that had been rudely set aside by the insolent prejudices of youth under the generic name of business, came slowly to have an intense and living significance. I cannot trace the process in detail; but I became aware of the fulness, the energy, the matchless interest of the world, and the vitality of a hundred thoughts that had seemed to me the dreariest abstractions.

Then, too, the greatest gain of all, there comes a sort of patience. In youth mistakes seemed irreparable, calamities intolerable, ambitions realizable, disappointments unbearable. An anxiety hung like a dark impenetrable cloud, a disappointment poisoned the springs of life. But now I have learned that mistakes can often be set right, that anxieties fade, that calamities have sometimes a compensating joy, that an ambition realized is not always pleasurable, that a disappointment is often of itself a great incentive to try again. One learns to look over troubles, instead of looking into them; one learns that hope is more unconquerable than grief. And so there flows into the gap the certainty that one can make more of misadventures, of unpromising people, of painful experiences, than one had ever hoped. It may not be, nay, it is not, so eager, so full-blooded a spirit; but it is a serener, a more interesting, a happier outlook.

And so, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, striking a balance of my advantages and disadvantages, I am inclined to think that the good points predominate. Of course there still remains the intensely human instinct, which survives all the lectures of moralists, the desire to eat one's cake and also to have it. One wants to keep the gains of middle life and not to part with the glow of youth. "The tragedy of growing old," says a brilliant writer, "is the remaining young;" that is to say, that the spirit does not age as fast as the body. The sorrows of life lie in the imagination, in the power to recall the good days that have been and the old sprightly feelings; and in the power, too, to forecast the slow overshadowing and decay of age. But Lord Beaconsfield once said that the worst evil one has to endure is the anticipation of the calamities that do not happen; and I am sure that the thing to aim at is to live as far as possible in the day and for the day. I do not mean in an epicurean fashion, by taking prodigally all the pleasure that one can get, like a spendthrift of the happiness that is meant to last a lifetime, but in the spirit of Newman's hymn--

"I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me."

Even now I find that I am gaining a certain power, instinctively, I suppose, in making the most of the day and hour. In old days, if I had a disagreeable engagement ahead of me, something to which I looked forward with anxiety or dislike, I used to find that it poisoned my cup. Now it is beginning to be the other way; and I find myself with a heightened sense of pleasure in the quiet and peaceful days that have to intervene before the fateful morning dawns. I used to awake in the morning on the days that were still my own before the day which I dreaded, and begin, in that agitated mood which used to accompany the return of consciousness after sleep, when the mind is alert but unbalanced, to anticipate the thing I feared, and feel that I could not face it. Now I tend to awake and say to myself, "Well, at any rate I have still to-day in my own hands;" and then the very day itself has an increased value from the feeling that the uncomfortable experience lies ahead. I suppose that is the secret of the placid enjoyment which the very old so often display. They seem so near the dark gate, and yet so entirely indifferent to the thought of it; so absorbed in little leisurely trifles, happy with a childlike happiness.

And thus I went slowly back to College in that gathering gloom that seldom fails to bring a certain peace to the mind. The porter sate, with his feet on the fender, in his comfortable den, reading a paper. The lights were beginning to appear in the court, and the firelight flickered briskly upon walls hung with all the pleasant signs of youthful life, the groups, the family photographs, the suspended oar, the cap of glory. So when I entered my book-lined rooms, and heard the kettle sing its comfortable song on the hearth, and reflected that I had a few letters to write, an interesting book to turn over, a pleasant Hall dinner to look forward to, and that, after a space of talk, an undergraduate or two were coming to talk over a leisurely piece of work, an essay or a paper, I was more than ever inclined to acquiesce in my disabilities, to purr like an elderly cat, and to feel that while I had the priceless boon of leisure, set in a framework of small duties, there was much to be said for life, and that I was a poor creature if I could not be soberly content.

Of course I know that I have missed the nearer ties of life, the hearth, the home, the companionship of a wife, the joys and interests of growing girls and boys. But if a man is fatherly and kind-hearted, he will find plenty of young men who are responsive to a paternal interest, and intensely grateful for the good- humoured care of one who will listen to their troubles, their difficulties, and their dreams. I have two or three young friends who tell me what they are doing, and what they hope to do; I have many correspondents who were friends of mine as boys, who tell me from time to time how it goes with them in the bigger world, and who like in return to hear something of my own doings.

And so I sit, while the clock on the mantelpiece ticks out the pleasant minutes, and the fire winks and crumbles on the hearth, till the old gyp comes tapping at the door to learn my intentions for the evening; and then, again, I pass out into the court, the lighted windows of the Hall gleam with the ancient armorial glass, from staircase after staircase come troops of alert, gowned figures, while overhead, above all the pleasant stir and murmur of life, hang in the dark sky the unchanging stars.

(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: On Growing Older

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