Crabbed Age and Youth, or Silent Serenity Meets Carpe Diem

Crabbed Age and Youth” is the title of a wonderful essay written by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was but 38.  Of course, Stevenson never reached old age himself (dying in 1894 at age 44); one can wonder if he still would have thought old age was “crabbed” if he had ever arrived there.  Nevertheless, it is an excellent examination of irreconcilable differences between the old and the young.  Stevenson observes:

All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and none, or almost none, for the disenchantments of old age.  It is thought to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.”  It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall probably think when I am yours.”  And yet the one is as good as the other: pass for pass, tit for tat, a Roland for an Oliver.

The old have learned something, perhaps, from experience; unfortunately, we cannot seem to pass that along.  Experience must be had (and hopefully learned from) by the experiencer.  And there is the additional problem, of course, that sometimes what the old have learned is a measure of fear.  We love the young because they are fearless; they dismay us for the same reason.

I had an experience this week of crabbed age encountering youth.  We have learned that it is often far easier to visit our children and grandchildren in their own environments; our house, our life, is not set up for either toddlers (too many fragile things to touch) or teenagers (not enough electronics or basketball hoops), so it is easier to go to them and see how the younger folk live (never jealous).  Like many in our generation, we are older grandparents – we are in our seventies and our grandchildren range in age from 2 to 15 (see my post “The Age of Grandmothers“).  Last week, however, we had a family of five visit with children from age 3 to 13.  Knowing we had a dearth of space and patience, we put them in hotel rooms; nevertheless, they were in our environment for about fourteen hours a day.  It was hard for me, and probably for them too.

As a habitual catastrophic thinker, I thought I had imagined all possible hazards.  I had put away breakables, locked away personal information, stocked the refrigerator and baked ahead.  I had good intentions.  But they weren’t in the house for five minutes before the ten-year-old was spinning her sister around in faster and faster circles in my favorite upholstered rocking chair.  I had no idea that it would turn 360 degrees, and no desire to see it send itself into orbit at the speed it was going.  The end table had already tipped over.  And so I “corrected” them.  Not a good start.

I never had a chance.  For one thing, we were outnumbered.  For another, they had far more energy than we did.  We hiked in the morning, ate lunch, hiked some more, and when we came home in the midafternoon, they were immediately looking for something else to do.  The only “something else” I was capable of was a nap before feeding dinner to the seven of us and cleaning up, all while hoping that nobody dumped their spaghetti on the carpet.

And there is another problem with spending too much time with your progeny.  You learn lots about their lives that is fun and interesting, but you also learn things that you don’t want to know.  More things to worry about, to catastrophize about.

But, back to Stevenson, they are young and we are the crabbed aged.  I don’t want to be young again, make the mistakes I made, have children underfoot all day and worry about how I am going to send them to college.  And they don’t want to be old.  So we rub along; they surely are glad to see the back of me (but also glad I packed cookies and sandwiches for their trip home), and I am glad to recede into my placid, quiet, and predictable rituals.

Stevenson, even though he was never old, knew that there was no use trying to make old age more adventuresome:

Childhood must pass away, and then youth, as surely as age approaches. The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances. To love playthings well as a child, to lead an adventurous and honourable youth, and to settle when the time arrives, into a green and smiling age, is to be a good artist in life and deserve well of yourself and your neighbour.

The children and grandchildren are gone.  I’m a “green and smiling” old lady again.

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