Writing is a Hopeful Act

Writing is a hopeful act.  Words assume that someone will read them, even if that someone is an older version of the person who put pen to paper in the first place.  Often we write to our future selves.  What else is the purpose of a journal?  Sure, we’re conversing with ourselves in the present.  But most of us write with the intention eventually of reading what we’ve written.  We want to know who we were when we were younger, so we record our thoughts as artifacts of our younger years to be excavated when we’re ready.  Despite the clarity of our thinking in the moment of writing, the words of our younger selves sometimes make no sense, and as with any excavation, we often are forced to guess at how the pieces of our younger selves fit together.  Sometimes we don’t recognize the person we were.  He is an alien to us.  He was meaner, more arrogant, maybe a little smarter, less jaded, more wide-eyed.

I steal often from my younger self.  He had ideas that would never occur to me now that I’m older and more set in my ways.  He had an open mind.  Mine is somewhat closed.  If things don’t interest me right away, I’m more likely now to give up on them than when I was younger.  Because I assume too often now that whatever seems new is really a dressed up version of something old.  Which is to say that I’m suspicious of everything.  Suspicion, taken too far, stifles thought and creativity.  Suspicion shuts the brain down.

My younger self recorded his ideas expressly so that older versions of him would be able to draw on them for inspiration.  So he has no right to become angry at me now for lifting his ideas.  I’m doing what he and I agreed to do.  We’re fulfilling our bargain.  But it’s still theft of a sort.  He and I share a name, but we aren’t the same person.  I’m not sure it would occur to me to write now what he wrote then.  He didn’t care that his thoughts were random and would impact no one, maybe not even himself.  It didn’t matter.  He had yet to feel that every action and every statement required an explicit purpose, a practical application, preferably one to which money was tied.  He just wanted to think, and that was enough.  Someone who shares my name but who was ten years younger wrote the following words:

A: What do you think of as you fall asleep?

B: I think about all the tasks I have to do the next day and I worry over those that I had to do that day.  Sometimes I preoccupy myself over weighing too much.  Other times, I wonder how I’ve performed in the eyes of my peers and I stress over the impressions I’ve made.  More than anything, I get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.  What do you think about?

A: Some of the same.  But I also spend a lot of time thinking about the distant past: people I’ve known, places I’ve been, occasions that I enjoyed. . . I wonder where those people are and how those places have changed with time.  I think of the distant future as well and long for a time when I’m older and life’s experiences have made me wiser.  Often I review the day that’s coming to an end.  I ask myself if I treated people with love and respect.  I note instances when my anger got the better of me or when I said the wrong thing and I vow never to make those same mistakes again.  I contemplate a book that I’ve been reading, toss ideas around in my head, imagine what’s happening in other parts of the world to people I’ll never know.  I dwell on the incessant pain in my back and neck, but then I remind myself that hundreds of millions of people have it worse.  Finally, I try every night to remember that it’s a beautiful world that we live in. . . Oh, and I also get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.

Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

I wrote the following about seven years ago, when I was twenty-three.  I was kind of obsessed then with growing older and what that would mean for how I saw and thought about the world.  I remember coming across an essay by Alan Lightman, a physicist turned novelist and essayist who most famously wrote a beautiful little book called Einstein’s Dreams.  In his essay Lightman explored the relationship between youth and the productivity of physicists.  He lamented that most physicists do their best work while they’re in their twenties and thirties, after which their ideas peter out and, as Lightman suggests, they become largely irrelevant to the advancement of science.  Below is an excerpt of Lightman’s essay, followed by my naive thoughts on it:

 The limber years of scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age.  Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity, Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity, and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five.  When I hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics.  By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible.  You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. . .

Why do scientists peak sooner than most other professionals?  No one knows for sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the single focus and detachment of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors a nimble mind but apparently has little to do with anything else.  In contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.  In science, you’re ultimately trying to connect with the clean logic of mathematics and the physical world; in the humanities, with people.  Even within science itself, a telling trend is evident.  Progressing from the more pure and self-contained of sciences to the less tidy, the seminal contributions spring forth later and later in life.  The average age of election to England’s Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.  In physics, the average age at which Nobel Prize winners do their prize-winning [usually for work that began in their twenties] is thirty-six; in chemistry it is thirty-nine, and so on. . .

. . . I hold no illusions about my own achievements in science, but I’ve had my moments, and I know what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at my desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened.  That magic cannot be replaced. . .

- Alan Lightman, Dance for Two

The short span of a physicist’s productive career has always fascinated me. What is the reason for its brevity?  I think that Lightman touches upon an answer to this question.  At the heart of physics is a yearning to understand, to explore the unknown,  to discover.  In this circumstance, the value of youth is that it is less clouded by experience.  Youth lacks the prejudices and preconceptions that must of necessity accumulate as one ages.  In a discipline where groundbreaking solutions often defy everything we thought we knew about the world, the fresh perspective and exuberance that often go along with youth are invaluable.  Something that Lightman doesn’t mention is the vehement criticism the older physicists of Einstein’s time directed at his theories of relativity.  A large part of the physics community dismissed his theories as nonsense.

The older we get, the more we must try to fit things into a framework for life and for reality that we’ve developed over time, whereas in our youth we’re still in the process of creating that framework.  In general, that our framework becomes more rigid as we age is not a bad thing.  In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that framework survives because it works.  It is the product of a lifetime of taking in and processing an overwhelming load of experiences.  In short, it is the result of years of trial and error.  This may be an oversimplification, but there is a grain of truth to it.

Oftentimes the youth of a culture are the primary catalyst for change, while the older generations are a check against that change.  Each serves an important purpose.  On the one hand, the young infuse a society with adaptability, while the old serve as a break against excessively radical change.

My greatest fear in aging is not that I’ll lose my athleticism or my youthful appearance.  Rather, I fear that I might forget what it’s like to experience something for the first time.  For every experience that I have–both good and bad–the realization rests in my mind that I’ll never again repeat that experience.  I’ll never again know with total fidelity how it made me feel: how it made my heart race, or my adrenaline flow. . . or how it brought me to tears of joy or tears of sorrow.  I fear losing the ability to see things in the world that don’t fit my framework, my paradigm.  I fear losing novelty, of living without the sense of awe and childlike wonder at this world that make life worth living.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in aging is balancing the fruits and insights of experience with the chaos and novelty of youth–of becoming wiser, but not at the expense of our openness to new things.

*I don’t know about that story I wrote in my last post.  I was trying to capture that feeling of experiencing something (the ocean) for the first time, and in particular doing so with someone for whom the experience is not new.  Except that in the story, the experience of seeing the ocean is new for both the father and the son for different reasons.  For the son, the ocean is new because he has never seen it.  For the father, the novelty lies in seeing the ocean for the first time WITH his son, sharing it with him, and allowing him to interpret it as he likes, as a child might.  I kind of rushed it yesterday, even though it’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while.  Don’t know if it worked!  I’ll probably post more fiction here and there for fun… I think?

Youth is Wasted on the Young?

I’ve heard three times this week someone say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never understood this statement when it’s uttered out of scorn.  Sometimes I think the translation of it would be: “If I could, I would rob the young of their youth,” in which case it springs from jealousy. But how can anyone know the wonders of youth without first having been youthful, without having been ignorant for a while of the distinction between feeling young and feeling old, or really just feeling older? It makes perfect sense to feel from time to time that youth is wasted on those who have it, but to repeat the phrase as a mantra, as some universal truth? Really?

If I ever come to believe that youth is wasted on the young, then the only rational conclusion would be that my youth was wasted on me. Because it would mean that I begrudge those who have it. It would mean that I’ve failed to see that good things come of having been young: certain childish appreciations you never lose, fascination for simple things, a love of life that flows out of unreason rather than originating in calculations of cost and benefit. What is the value of a soap bubble? That it floats. That it reflects a rainbow. And a blade of grass? What does it do for me? It glows green, it seeks out the sun, and it will do this 100 times out of 100. What more do I need?

I don’t think we lose these insights gleaned when we were kids. We just wish we could experience them again for the first time, when we lacked context and didn’t know how unusual they were, before we understood that we were supposed to deconstruct everything, even what is indivisible and perfect as it is.

Yeah, well, I’m not that old, right? Sure, but at some point you do become aware of the process. Which doesn’t mean I know much about it.

*This is a re-post of something I wrote as a note on Facebook.

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