Young and old

Even on common ground, even where much is said with profit and pleasure for each, when the old and the young talk together there is always something unsatisfactory. It is not that the young ask stupid questions; nor that the old are preoccupied; nor that the young are clever, but the old are knowledgeable; nor that the young are forward, but the old are wary. These are only obstacles; but as one is young and one 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. Wisdom as the distillation of experience, as the dark sayings that illuminate, is easily found in the books where it is anatomized and catalogued. And 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 more by glimpses and intimations and barren plans against the someday as by doing. Wisdom is sharp, and even those who know the cut is coming cannot avoid it, so the old are generally kind enough not to pass on this poison wisdom before its time.

As 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 he is new, while he is strong and armored with laughter; but they are doubly frustrated.

1. To be young is only to be indignant that, not having asked to be born, so much is expected of you in return. 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. Who you are or will be is arrived at, not pre-established from nature or from nurture, for then like causes would yield like people—but viewed exactly and patiently, no two people are really alike. In the industrial processing (as in education or employment) and the political shepherding (by classes and groups) of human beings, categories are unavoidable; but they are openly or subtly enforced commands to a tractable conformity, not discovered human natures.

2. Even be a pre-existing individuality present, it is inaccessible. You must know yourself before others can know you. All we know of another is what we sympathize with; and what is distinct enough to 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. 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 shall seem either a fool, or a mass of affectations; and if you do not try, you shall confuse or mislead. This always ends in disappointment, or in unintended betrayal.

Introspection is a form of daydream. Experiment, not reflection, obtains self-knowledge. Continual success, it is true, could lead to pride, or continual failure to despair. But as we are of clay or crooked timber, we chose pride by forgetting our failures, or how others have capacitated our successes; and as we are born weak, we choose despair by despising or spurning forgiveness. Despair implies pride, and pride leads to despair.

If you can doubt praise without disbelieving it; hear out reproof without accepting it; remember joy in shame and shame in joy without lessening either; you will learn what you can expect of yourself, while you can make use of it. Such self-knowledge, once obtained, shows like any other upheaval of the mind; knowing yourself is as unmistakable as grief, or being in love. This is as much as you may have from old age in youth, or from youth in old age.