What would it be like to couple a youthful body with the wisdom of age? It is largely the subject of movie comedies, partially because a serious look at the question would be difficult. Still, everyone seems to be wishing for that imaginary combination whenever they say “Youth is wasted on the young.”
My short response to that statement? I think not. Youth is exactly where it needs to be; age as well. But, just to make sure, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of youth and experience and why they can’t easily be combined, even conceptually.
To begin, what benefits attach to youth?
I’d include a fresh, eager perspective on things; enthusiasm and boundless energy; and a great capacity for getting excited (in every sense). Remember the enkindling experience of a new great song or a new love? You are likely to hear more wonderful music over time, and probably have later loves, but they don’t quite feel the same to you if you are mature when they happen.
Add to the period of life’s early gifts an openness to new experience, intellectual flexibility and the relative ease of molding yourself into a new shape; quickness of mind and body; great beauty and strength. Finally, youth is more innocent and finds it easier to trust, not yet having been so fooled by life and the people in it to assume that appearances are always the real thing.
On the down side, there is the self-consciousness that particularly afflicts the young and can make it a painful time. If some Eastern religions are correct, freedom from suffering and peace of mind are found in a state called “nirvana,” certainly not to be experienced while self-consciously finding your path in life. And, no, I’m not referring to the band “Nirvana.”
We tend to learn more from pain than pleasure. Thus, early life — the period in which we learn the most — is a painful time, of necessity. “The School of Hard Knocks” doesn’t award you a diploma, but perhaps it should.
Most of us do not enjoy the youthful stress connected with not knowing a thing and having to learn large quantities of procedures, skills, and information rapidly. It is no fun being behind all the bigger, older, and more learned competitors and authorities. But this gives way to a more gradual — less “all at once” process of learning as one ages. Routines are acquired. Practice makes perfect. One discovers “the tricks of the trade,” even though baseball great Vernon Law warned that “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.”
Still, experience does tend to make lots of things easier, so that each day is not quite so challenging as it was when we were growing up. And with that experience and the knowledge acquired along the way comes, one hopes, fewer of the errors that are a part of any learning process, thus serving to increase one’s feeling of self-confidence and security; and perhaps even allowing for less self-consciousness.
The young usually have a greater sense of “possibility” than the mature. It is easier for them to turn around, retrace steps, and start over. They are usually less encumbered by things like spouses and children, mortgages and other debts. However much one loves the spouse and children, they are also a responsibility that constrain you. As Francis Bacon said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”
The fresh mind is more comfortable with change than the stodgy and stuck older person, as anyone who has looked at the effect of technological advances on these two groups. Indeed, one danger of aging is to gradually feel more alienated from the world in which you live, partly because it is no longer the world you knew.
Of course, the fuzzy-cheeked have more time ahead of them in most cases, and much less behind them than do the mature. What is more, the “sense” of time passing is different in the novice and the old hand; the latter can feel it passing with a speed that his junior cannot, even though the clock is the same for both.
I don’t wish to suggest that all the best of life is to be found in youth, but the rewards of the mature time of life are certainly different. If you can avoid becoming frozen in your ideas and jaded by having seen (and suffered) too much, you just might appreciate things more when you are older, not take them so much for granted.
My wife tells me that she never saw the moon in the old days, when she slept through every night. A bit older now, we both find that a trip past the skylight “into that good night” reveals the glorious moon shining down on us, the beauty of which is some compensation for sleep that is not as sound as it used to be. Just so, the love a mature person has its own, perhaps less urgent biological necessity, having to do with knowing that nothing lasts forever, a feeling that is often hard for a young person to fully grasp, even though he knows it to be true intellectually.
The more seasoned individual should have become more comfortable in his own skin, even when that skin undergoes its own unwelcome changes; less concerned with what the crowd thinks (although, obviously, this isn’t true for professions like politics)!
In real maturity there is a steadiness and calm: you’ve seen worse before, you’ve lived through a lot; so you know that not everything is a matter of life and death. Or to quote a famous basketball coach’s advice to his young players: “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You’re going to die a lot.” And so the mature person “dies” less often than his youthful counterpart and is at least a little better at taking on difficult challenges. The man with seniority no longer sweats so much of the small stuff.
If he is more than just chronologically mature and has actually learned from time and experience, he has begun to accept some things — doesn’t rage so often and so easily at the unfairness that is a part of any life. Not surprising, then, that revolutions are usually for the young. Not that they aren’t worth fighting even by those who are older, but somehow the older man is no longer “that person” who is capable of the kind of energy and passion and idealism that fuel most revolutionaries. Life finds him less intense, not so easily worked up. Just look at the way young orchestra members sit on the edge of their seats, while seasoned musicians look more “laid back” and you will know what I mean.
Reflecting on my career as a therapist, I think that a few of my patients might have done better with the older than with the younger version of me: the seasoned psychologist who had “seen it all before” and could therefore make faster and more accurate diagnoses and more apt therapeutic interventions; the man who was more secure and more able to keep an appropriate psychological distance from the patient: not too close and not too far away.
But, it is possible that some of my patients would have benefited more from my younger self, one with more energy and a need to prove himself. That less experienced version of me, of course, sometimes had a hard time keeping the right therapeutic balance because he was prone to caring too much. But, sometimes enthusiasm and energy carry the day despite other shortcomings. “Swings and roundabouts” (offsetting gains and losses), as the British like to say. You are who you are at whatever age you are and you try to better yourself. A good therapist and, I should say, a good person should be forever looking to improve.
You would not want it otherwise if you were, as you will be inevitably, the patient of some medical or therapeutic practitioner. Experience does count. You wouldn’t want a surgeon, no matter how talented and bright, who has done the operation you are about to submit to only once before. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want a once great specialist who was worn down by routine and time.
Ideally, whether it is a therapist or a physician, what I think you’d want is someone with a good deal of experience but who approaches you with a fresh attitude; trying to recapture, if possible, that awareness and enthusiasm for the job that we usually associate with “the first time.” The very greatest scientists and lovers, teachers and musicians, friends and therapists “make it new.”
Back to the question of whether youth is wasted on the young, can you imagine going back to your childhood or teen years with the knowledge and experience of someone 30 or 50 or 70? How could you possibly fit in? And look at those middle-aged, well-seasoned folks who behave and dress like twenty-somethings. Same problem.
We are stuck with who we are, but there is a lesson in this, I think. No, it is not to spend the rest of your time regretting what you had and lost; or never had and wishing you could go back and try again, armed with all that time has taught you. Rather, the lesson is in living life fully at whatever age you are, because, in part, you will never be that particular version of yourself again. We need to stumble to learn, as we do particularly in our youth; and we need the losses that come with experience in order to appreciate what we have.
As much as change is frightening, it does make the experience of living more interesting. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said 2500 years ago, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”
Embrace the new river and the new version of yourself, at whatever age.
On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up?
The top image is called Old and Young by Mbjerke. The second one is a New Zealand OFLC Poster. Both of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Dave Barry ad photo comes from Amazon.com