Posted on April 3, 2014
U. B. Phillips
It is arresting to observe the constancy of older men and women within the variability of historical flux and the inevitable change it engenders. The world has changed, but they have not. They seem an anachronism to their juniors, for whom the unquestioned assumptions of the present age are normative. The elders carry with them the perspectives, virtues, convictions, prejudices, and vices of the peculiar era of their youth. To their idealistic juniors, the prejudices and vices predominate, and the virtues and convictions evaporate at the scrutiny of youthful eyes naively conditioned by a single era, their own era, whose normativeness they would not think to question. Little do they know that as they age, and a new generation succeeds them, they too — and their prejudices and vices — will be an anachronism. The world changes about them, but their own habits of mind, their own worldview, long before solidified. The world moves elsewhere, and they with it, but they carry their own private world, the previous world, in their bosom.
But though their habits of mind and worldview persist, they as human beings do grow. They grow in knowledge and in wisdom, which often stand outside, and sometimes contrary to, the knowledge and wisdom of the age that succeeds them, for there is no more reliable characteristic of youth than its aversion to the deepest intellectual convictions of the age of its predecessors (“There is no greater heresy,” a friend once wryly intoned, “than the one from which you’ve been most recently rescued”). These seniors are able to impart that wisdom to their predecessors — if only the latter will hear it.
“The Truth Always Comes Too Late For Us”
What they generally cannot do, as Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out, is to change themselves. “The truth,” he writes, ”always comes too late for us.” Like the twig bent in its youth, whose subsequent trajectory of growth becomes permanent and final, so the era in which they came of age has so shaped them that they cannot change — even under the ripening knowledge of their own cogent advice — without breaking their very being. While, however, they cannot change, their juniors whom they advise, whose trajectory is not yet solidified, can change. It is this phenomenon that spurs what is perhaps Rosenstock-Huessy’s most incisive observation: we should not calculate a man’s lifetime from his own birth to his own death, but from his own fifties to his son’s fifties. In short, I will not know if I have been successful as a man — much less a father — until my sons have lived through their fifties. One can assess my life’s and my parental work not when my sons are young, but only when they have had time to develop the implications of my own life when I myself lived during my fifties, not during my twenties, when the implications of my own thinking were immature. In most cases (though not in mine personally, since I sired sons at a very young age), this means that one will not be alive to discover whether he has in fact been a successful man and father. That judgment will be left to others. His chronological (but not his influential) lifetime outlives him in his children, just as his father’s lifetime is outlived in him.
“The Strangeness of the Past”
What Alister McGrath terms “the strangeness of the past” survives in us as we grow older. The younger often perceive this strangeness displayed most patently in dress and mannerism, but its actual root is man himself — in his ontology. Different ages stamp men differently. This historical conditioning is, in large measure, what produces different kinds of men all stalking Earth at any one given time. It also produces intergenerational conflict. What in the 1960’s was termed the “generation gap” is, however, precisely the opposite of what should occur. A conversation, not a gap, is what is most needed. A generational conversation is essential not only to transmit the best elements of the past’s “strangeness” to a succeeding generation but also to exhibit the subversive fact of historical conditioning to the previous one, which ordinarily glories in the peculiar features of the age of its youth, and intensely so the older it grows. The act of growing older proves — or should prove — that the mores and convictions of one’s youth should not be absolutized — that the “good old days” were never that good, that the future is open to progress, not destined to regress. The reality of growing older, on the other hand, should indicate to a succeeding (younger) generation that youth is fleeting, that the assumptions they are incurring and will later absolutize are not in fact absolute or otherwise privileged, and that the older can change their thinking — even when they cannot change themselves.
Meanwhile, we gaze in fascination, and sometimes even awe, at our immediate predecessors, who carry the past with them, a past that survives only in them, a past that is fleeting, a past that will accompany them to the grave — just as we will carry our own past to the grave. It is only man, man made in God’s image, that can transmit a little of that past — his own peculiar past, not just the general past of the era of his youth — to the future. The solidarity of humanity is marked partly by this gripping trait — the ability not merely to span eras (“tradition”) but to commit a small portion of one’s own past, one’s private, unrepeatable tradition, to another individual.
In this strange way, a little of the past, and with it we ourselves, live on.