The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Young and Old

Even on common ground, even when there is much to be said, when the old and the young talk together it is always somehow unsatisfactory. It is not that the young ask stupid questions; not that the old are preoccupied; not that the young are clever, but the old are knowledgeable; not that the young are forward, but the old are wary. These are only obstacles, and obstacles can be overcome. But as one is young and the other is old, each wants from the other what they cannot have.

The young want the wisdom of the old without understanding what they ask for. Death is coming – even the young know this. Even the young are broken to the awareness of death when first something they love dies. What the old know that the young are free of is how short and how wasteful life is before death: that no matter how narrow the range of your possibilities, even in the longest life there is not enough time to fulfill them. You must choose. You must live by glimpses and intimations and barren plans. The old are generally kind enough not to pass on this poison wisdom before its time; and if they said what they knew they would not be believed.

The young do not get what they want from the old; the old do not get what they want from the young. They want to get to know a person while they are new, while they are strong and armored with laughter; but their efforts are frustrated.

What the old forget is what it is like not to know who or what you are. To be young is only to be indignant that, not having asked to be born, so much is expected of you in return. Who you are, who you will be, is arrived at, not received from nature or from nurture, for then like causes would yield like people – but viewed exactly and patiently, no two people are really alike. You cannot win the hope of a place in the world to pursue, or the having of a place to defend. They must in some sense be given to you. Until then, the self remains unsettled.

You must know yourself before others can know you. All we know of one another is what we sympathize with; and what is obvious enough in another to share in, is only what they have first distinguished for themselves. It is not that you can pass on your self-knowledge; as your face is different to the mirror, to the camera, and to the world, it is different to everyone in the world. But only stupidity is unselfconscious. You must know yourself: if you do not know yourself rightly, you have a false idea of yourself. If you then try to be understood – or even to be recognized – you seem either a fool, or a mass of affectations; and if you do not try, you confuse or mislead. This ends badly: at best in disappointment, at worst in unintended betrayal.

Age is a double tragedy. Age not only ruins us, it isolates us. We reflect – “If I knew then what I know now…” But we cannot even teach what we have learned to the present, let alone the past. And youth is a double farce: we do not know what we are doing; we do not even know who is doing it.

And in between – what is in between? Who can mediate? Nothing is in between. There are no mediators. Youth bears us up until the moment it lets us fall. Age descends the moment youth departs. One evening we go to sleep not yet knowing who we are; the next morning we wake up strangers to ourselves.