23 November 2006

Ageless children

Are we really still children, even in our old age?

What is wisdom but lessons learned through trial and error, mistakes, wrong decisions, ignorance that finally saw the light, misfortunes overcome and sheer luck?

Could it be true that we are really as inept and bumbling at 95 as we were at 14?

When I was a child, I thought my parents knew everything. I believed without question that I could trust them to keep me safe, to care for and love me, and to teach me the things I needed to know to get along in the world, once I grew up. I didn't know it, but I was a very lucky child.

They did the first three things well. The last ... well, they tried. But between the ages of 16 and 22, I was convinced they knew nothing of the world. They were fuddy-duddies, closed-minded, narrow, prudish and fixated on things that were meaningless. Their purpose in life was to prevent me from spreading my wings.

At 18 I was ready to fly, perched on the edge of the nest but not quite sure how to do it. My parents, bless them, gave me an unceremonious shove. I was a scowling and most irritating fledge, ungrateful and full of bravado. We loved each other, but they were as tired of me as I was of them.

I flew.

Over the years I’ve both soared and crashed. I’ve made good decisions, bad decisions and some very bad decisions. I’ve done my best to learn from each disaster and tried not to repeat it. I’ve worked to find the good in each day and to sweeten the lemons that come my way.

But sometimes no matter how hard you try, you don’t see the thunderheads gathering, and you don’t know you’ve flown into a storm until the clouds close in, the winds start buffeting you this way and that, and the lighting crackles all around you.

With each year of my life I’ve tried to look back at what I’ve learned, hoping that somehow it will magically translate into wisdom, and that being a child running willy-nilly through my time here on Earth will finally end and I'll “grow up.”

But what I’ve learned so far is that we really never do. We are all children, no matter how many years we live. Age isn’t wisdom. We’re all just doing the best we can and hoping that somehow, it will all be OK in the end.

Today, the people I think of as “adults” are those in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The rest are my contemporaries or younger than I am, and I know that they’re still children, floundering around with varying degrees of success, just like I am. I’ve learned enough to know in my heart of hearts that all of us, no matter our ages, are really just childlike wanderers and adventurers in a world of full of wonders, never sure what we’ll encounter around the next bend.

Will it be a dragon or a warm puppy? A wide, bottomless crevasse or a sunlit meadow of wildflowers?

I understand now that as human beings, we never really become adults. Inside, where it counts, we’re always and forever children, curious and maddeningly stubborn, able to delude ourselves into thinking we know more than we do. There’s beauty in that, but also great danger. It’s a wonder, really, that we live so long.

Is this wisdom?

I’ve learned that nothing but the Earth, the sky and the stars are permanent. I realize quite clearly that I could well be wrong about their permanence, too. It won't be the first time.

Yet I’ve stood with my hands flat, my fingers spread on huge stones cut and stacked into a tower 800 years ago by people with hopes and dreams, people just like me. The tower stands, but the ones who built it are gone, as are their children, their children’s children, and on and on until today.

But even in their absence, through my hands I felt the energy of those ancient generations, as if they were trying to tell me something.

I felt like a child, the rough coldness of the stone against my skin, awed and wondering at the human determination that carved, lifted and stacked those stones into a tower rising more than 60 feet above the ground where I stood. Its purpose was simple and useful, compassionate and pragmatic. At its top, a bonfire blazed for centuries, a bright light to warn hapless seafarers away from the snaggletoothed shore and guide them on to safe harbor.

That tower stood – and still stands -- at the edge of the Weser River in Weddewarden, Germany, where that wide river empties itself into the North Sea. Over the centuries the fortunes of the people who lived near it ebbed and flowed like the tide. They fought wars, enjoyed all-too-short stretches of peace, and lived out their lives knowing little about the rest of the world. They endured trials and tribulations in their daily lives and took comfort in the happiness, joy and laughter of their children.

Did the people who lived in those times feel like grown-ups, once they reached a certain age?

I don’t think so. I think they were just like us – children to their deathbeds, wondering and awestuck, just trying to do their best and live as well as they could. And perhaps along the way, learn enough to be wise.

1 comment:

Kevin Wolf said...

Well, you've got wise enough to tell others through this post what you've learned. That's something anyway.