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?

Glowing Fields and Shimmering Seas

The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father.  “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.

“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”

The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean.  Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans.  The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease.  The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar.   Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off.  The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.

“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.

“Of North Dakota?”

“Yeah.  The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth.  The wind screams there, too.”

The boy looked toward the sky.  A seagull hovered overhead.  He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them.  Some fought over fish carcasses.  Others pecked at their grey and white feathers.  Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean.  “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave.  They’re saying, ‘Go!  Go!’” the boy said.

“You think they don’t want us here?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they don’t care.”

The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean.  His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand.  The ocean grew louder.  The gulls grew more insistent: “Go!  Go!” they called.

Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father.  The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over.  He stumbled backward and caught himself.  The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.

“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea.  The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered.  It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.

A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”

“It’s angrier than home.”

“Yeah, and the sun is different.  At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in.  When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in.  And the fields smell like summer.”

“And what happens here?”

“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light.  It spits it right back up at the sky.  But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams.  And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”

“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.

“I know.”

“You’re right.  It does smell good.”

The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock.  The boy leaned on his father and did the same.  He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him.  He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.

His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand.  Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach.  Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave.  The boy jumped, then laughed.  He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.

They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us.  It’s not angry.”

“You’re right.  But it could break us so easily.”

The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean.  “Now I get it,” the boy said.  “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”

“That sounds right.”

The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.

Why Words Matter, in the Words of Diane Ackerman: An Excerpt from “Language at Play”

The following is an excerpt from “Language at Play,” an essay by Diane Ackerman about the power and use of language, and the role poetry plays in all of our lives.  She says it better than I could.  This is the kind of writing that paralyzes me and that I can only react to after it has lived inside of me for a while.  Enjoy!

We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt.  Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before.  Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging.  We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.

Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words.  In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance.  By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task.  Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game.  Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s.  Then they become an ist among the isms.  But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.

Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eisely), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets.  Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered.  I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life.  If you read the first book by famous scientists–J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle–you find minds full of passion and wonder.  Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm.  But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel.  Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.

I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely felt emotions.  We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves.  Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks.  We cherish the insights that poets discover.  We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold.  We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions.  We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity.  Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us.  Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses.  In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.”  In a different way, artists are too.

And yet, through their eyes–perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breathtaking views of the human pageant.  Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder.  Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic.  I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.

The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles.  you would think that would be enough.  yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words.  We use words for many reasons.  As a form of praise and celebration.  To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world.  As a magical intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe.  For religious reasons, in worship.  For spiritual reasons, to commune with others.  To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic.  To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home.  Words bring patterns, meaning, and perspective to life.  We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest.  Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane.  They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.

Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror?  And do that by using the confection of words.  What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years?  What unlikely and magical creatures.  Who could know them in a lifetime?  When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones.  I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.

*This excerpt is from pp. 184-187 of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.   The rest of Ackerman’s essay is well worth reading, as are the other essays included in the book.

In Search of Happiness: Recreating the Past

A few years ago I read an essay by Paul Theroux in which he wrote that we spend our entire adult lives trying to rediscover those moments of perfect happiness that we had as children.  To this end, we gravitate toward certain types of people, places, and experiences in an effort to recreate those tiny, intangible slices of perfection that lie strewn across the landscape of our youth like fallen leaves.  Now, I’m not in total agreement with Theroux’s thesis because it implies that our search must always yield nothing but clumsy approximations of what once was.  It also assumes that everyone has a happy childhood, which of course is not the case.  Moreover, I’m sure most people share with me the belief that we can match those childhood memories by creating new, equally blissful ones as we age and mature.  But at the very least, I think he’s on to something.

My best memories from childhood are of family road trips to Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Montana, together with weekly visits to our local Barnes and Noble.  Although in the beginning I was always a little annoyed at how long it took to reach our destination, eventually I came to appreciate the journey itself at least as much as the arrival.  Long drives taught me patience and nourished in me a love of idle thought and contemplation.  Too much patience can lead to excessive idleness, just as too much idle thought and contemplation can lead to inaction, anxiety, and depression.  But if tempered, each of these tendencies can be a good thing.  I know for a fact that I still haven’t achieved the proper balance, but I’m working on it. 

As with road trips, initially I hated going to Barnes and Noble every other day, every week, but before long, an hour or two in that bookstore every few days turned me into an explorer.  My parents would wander off to their favorite sections, my dad either to the science fiction or the technical isle, my mom to the art section.  They would look at my sister and me and say, “About an hour.”  Usually that one hour would become an hour and a half, and that hour and a half would become two hours.  After about fifteen minutes I would hunt down one of my parents and ask, “Can we go now?”  They would always answer with a concise, unsympathetic, “No.”  It was after those first fifteen minutes, once I knew there was no way out, that I began to really explore the bookstore and the mountain of information and excitement it had to offer.  At some point, our trips to Barnes and Noble became my favorite part of each week.

Now, at age thirty, the one thing I yearn for most of all is travel, and I don’t mean travel by plane (although I fly quite a bit), but travel by car, or bus, or train–the kind of travel that allows me to see in greater detail what lies between my point of origin and my final destination.  This kind of slow travel allows an opportunity to become acquainted both with the countryside and with other people in a way that air travel generally does not.  I learned more about human beings in one bus trip from Yosemite National Park to Fresno, CA than I’ve learned over the course of weeks spent in some places– because travel by bus forces people to talk to each other for extended periods of time.  It provides a perfect opportunity both for “idle thought” and meaningful conversation with strangers I’ll see only once in my entire life, but whom I’ll never forget.  These are people, and more importantly, types of people, whom I never would have met had I not set foot on a bus. 

And since I can’t always be on the road, usually I satiate my hunger by heading to the bookstore and perusing the aisles for something new–some book or author I’ve never noticed before, or even an old book I had long forgotten about.  In other words, the two things I want most of all are to travel and to read–to wander into bookstores and lose myself amidst an endless maze of books and knowledge and wisdom, to make my away through the arteries of our country and our world in search of interesting places and interesting people.  In short, I want to recapture my youth.  I want to be happy.

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Beyond Words

There are books you avoid because their heft intimidates you and there are books you avoid because you doubt they can possibly live up to their reputations.  Then there are books you avoid both because you fear them and because you can’t imagine a work of literature achieving the perfection so many attribute to it.  For me, ten years ago, Crime and Punishment was such a book.  Until about a month ago, Les Miserables was such a book.  And until today, War and Peace was such a book.  Now, I get it.

Tolstoy didn’t write a novel.  He created a world.  He outdid historians in his depiction of the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russia and Russians.  He elucidated the aristocratic lifestyle.  He philosophized and quested for meaning and purpose in life.  He revealed the constrained circumstances of Russian women who depended on marrying well to advance.  He expounded on the ineffability of human life and historical events.  Etc.

The powers of language are always suspect in this book.  Tolstoy writes now with precision, now with force, now with delicacy, yet from his argument–sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit–that life and history defy description emerges the idea that language itself is deficient and even dishonest.  Tolstoy takes feeble words as his tools, pieces them together, and in doing so transcends their limitations and creates something that is far larger than its constituent parts.  His underlying thesis (or, rather, one of his underlying theses) is that no essay, no historical tome, no library of a million essays and historical tomes can describe or explain a historical event, be it large or small.  You can’t tell what happened; you have to show it, and even then you’ll leave out almost everything. 

I know almost nothing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, of what it meant to be a Russian before, during or after the invasion.  I know almost nothing about who or what drives history, about who or what causes people to be good or bad, smart or dumb, brave or cowardly.  But about all of these things I know infinitely more than I did before I picked up War and Peace.  Which is saying a lot and almost nothing at all. 

I leave off with two quotes by Tolstoy that sum up his book better than I can:

“The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind.  To grasp directly and embrace in words–to describe–the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible” (p. 1179).

“What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still lesss a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed” (p. 1217).