“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” Dylan’s song, though I think the Byrds covered it best. There it was, as early as 1967, letting me know everything (almost) I needed to know about the virtue in adapting, if not shedding, my youthful idealism into a broader, more balanced, and certainly healthier version of life. But, yes, I was too young, only 14 in 1967, and I was listening more to the rebellion of the beat, rather than understanding the keen warning wisdoms of the lyrics. There was no way any of us could be wrong, it was all too fresh and beautiful to ever steer us from a future which promised freedom from all that had passed before.
It’s seductive. Who doesn’t want to escape the history of the development, and fall, of all things human, if you have taken even one good hard look at the history of all that has come before, even it is written by the victorious? Imagine if we had a fully developed history written by the vanquished available at the corner drug store on the racks. We’d have a hard time picking up those magazines, but if we did, we might just be young enough to leave the old to their old ways, and really think out a different way.
We were young, we thought the music was the alchemy that would transform our accurate, but callow assessments into the wisdom of the old. Now it’s easy to forgive such a vast mistake. After all the music was so good, and there was no truth before it; it only arrived to us on vinyl, and not in our textbooks, the TV news, or the journalism of the day. This day, the news was the music itself.
“Things they do look c-cold…hope I die before I get old,” sang the Who, “Talking ‘Bout My Generation.” Of course, the truth is more complex: something does die, and you do get old. Get old, as they say, if you are lucky.
Lucky, especially, in these times. The pandemic, which seems to target the old, we’ve gotten too used to it. It’s gotten old, too. I think it was September 2021, they put 660,000 little white flags on the Capitol Mall in DC. The times did a video. It is only a sea of white flags seemingly to stretch on eternally, small as they are, 660,000 does make an ocean of grief you can’t get to the bottom of. Of course, now, the death toll is nearer a million, and that doesn’t count Long COVID, those who died because there “elective” surgeries never took place in hospitals full of the plague.
Plague, famine, and war. These are promised. And older than by far than anyone else we know. We can hope the dinosaurs didn’t starve to death; it would be easier to go quicker. According to the Kenny Rogers song “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
This seems a bit cynical, a bit young, a bit immature. I think the best you can hope for is way beyond that. Of course, it taking growing up to do it. A willingness to take on both old and young in your soul and believe both without cheating either.
Old enough to see that life is a pattern into which we fit gracefully, only by an almost sacrificial acceptance of the all the portions of the circle game, all the roles we will embody, and finally shed. They are who we are, and yet we are more than those roles too. That’s the old part, giving up that sense of being “more unique” than any other human. The young part is being fresh, inquisitive, excited to be alive, even excited to be dying in the moment that it arrives. Ready for whatever’s next, and not wallowing in the current reductionism that says it knows what life is. Who knows what life is? If someone answers that question too definitively you know that they are neither old nor young, but simply a tragic fool unable to put their foot down in either old, or young, pretending to float in the shallows, and lacking the depth fully available to a human life.
The best you can hope for is all that, and more. You can hope to be awake to the last moment, surrounded by all those you love, and who you know will carry on for you here, while you move on. We grow both younger and older if we age well, and in that, there is much to hope for.