I ran across a cute Disney video from Frozen II, wherein a young snowman (snowboy?) named Olaf sings a delightful song about how life is scary, but comforts himself that “this will all make sense when I am older.” Of course, that got me thinking (now that I am older) about whether that was true. I invite you to answer the same question for yourself.
Separated by time and hormones from experiences of our younger years, there is a certain detachment in old age that allows us to calmly consider why certain things happened, why we did the things we are now embarrassed to remember. And there is sometimes a bittersweet melancholy to such thought. As Kierkegaard told us, “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.”
Many people have tried to make sense of their lives, to give it a linear and rational narrative. One of the things we learn in old age is that human beings are not always (or often) rational animals, lessons are sometimes earned but not learned, and we accumulate at least as much guilt as we do wisdom. In these days, wisdom is needed, guilt seems to be confused with embarrassment, and the old often seem willing to let the young set the moral agenda – on civil rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, humane acceptance of all kinds.
This reminds me of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery. There are a couple of mysterious things about this episode, which occurs only in the Gospel of John. The Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus; Mosaic law calls for her to be stoned to death and the crowd is ready. Jesus responds by crouching down and writing in the sand. Over the centuries there has been much speculation about what he wrote. Perhaps he was writing the sins of the onlookers, because finally he rises and tells the crowd that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Personally, I wonder if he was just writing to get his thoughts straight – something I do all the time. So the writing in the sand is one mystery, but not the one that interests me the most.
Soon after Jesus’ challenge (let him who is without sin throw the first stone), the crowd starts to drop their stones and disperse. And here is the most interesting part to me in this familiar passage: John clearly states that “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.” The old people left first. Why?
Did the old leave first because they were wiser? Had they learned that youthful indiscretions are not the end of the world? Or did the old leave first because they had accumulated so much sin of their own that they knew clearly and immediately that they were not eligible to cast the first stone? Is this an example of the value of experience?
I have elsewhere mused on the value of reflection in old age, and of writing one’s own story. Maybe there will not be a clear narrative when we go to string the episodes of our life together, but there will surely be lessons there which we were taught, but never had time to really learn. In the episode of the woman taken in adultery, the issue was forced. For most of us there is not such a crisis. But there is still a need, and time to learn the lessons that have accumulated in the parts of our minds we don’t visit very often. “This will all make sense as I get older,” says young Olaf. Perhaps, with distance and time and attention, anything is possible. However, we might also remember the lesson that Sara Teasdale shared in one of her last poems: “The heart asks more than life can give, /When that is learned, then all is learned.”