Westward Of Fifty
A FAMILIAR line of pulpit exhortation is that which regards our present life as a preparation, good or bad, for a future and invisible one. What we do here and now will enormously affect what we become yonder and then. It would be fully as much to the point, and with some minds even more efficacious, if, in this view of life as a preparation, the preacher at times, for a change, confined himself to our visible career. The region lying westward of fifty is one which we shall all traverse if we live long enough, and it is a doctrine against which no sceptic voice can be raised that our experiences there will be largely a reaping of what, in, the earlier period, we have sown. That a successful sowing is not too easy is evident from the failures that are everywhere apparent. How frequent and disastrous these failures are is perhaps best illustrated by the bad repute which old age has fallen into, both in literature and in the popular imagination.
There have been philosophers, such as Plato in the remote distance and Fontenelle nearer at hand, who have glorified age as life's happiest time, but the general verdict has seemed otherwise. The early world as a whole regarded the post-youth period almost with a shudder. A line in Mimnermus tells us that " when the appointed time of youth is past it is better to die forthwith than to live." Anacreon the joyous, the poet of love and wine, finds nothing in the last stage but the sense of privation and the prospect of dread Avernus. Horace, his Latin counterpart, sends across his past the futile prayer, " Oh ! that Jove would restore to me the years that are gone ! " Montaigne, who considered himself old at fifty-four, declared that "old. age set more wrinkles on the spirit than on the face." Even Wordsworth, with his immense spiritual insight, seems afraid of life's second half. The poet, he found, did not usually fare well in it.
We poets begin our life in gladness,
And there is perhaps nowhere in literature a more vivid picture of desolation than that of his "Small Celandine " as an image of life's helpless last stage, with these mournful lines for an ending :
Oh, man ! that from thy fair and shining youth,
And there is undoubtedly a great deal, and that not merely on the surface, that appears to back up this indictment. Age is in a sense a decline, a failure, a disease, which no medicine can cure. Old Roger Bacon's curious "Libellus de Retardandis Senectutis Accidentibus," in the various means it proposes for resisting the advance of the enemy, holds out no hope of finally driving him off. On one great side of our life, whatever our earlier precautions and preparations, we are, after fifty, certainly on the down-grade. We have ceased to be athletes. We can no longer draw on unlimited physical reserve. The sensualist must, with however bad a grace, give up his nuits blanches. He finds himself, in fact, disagreeably occupied with the bill for them, long deferred, and with a prodigious interest charged, which Nature is now presenting him. He would sympathise heartily with the sentiment of a law lord of the last century whose riotous youth had brought him gout in the later years, when, apostrophising his afflicted extremities, he cried, " Confound the legs ! If I had known they were to carry a Lord Chancellor I would have taken better care of them
But that is not all, nor perhaps the worst. It is brought as one of the fatal accusations against the post-fifty period that it lacks interest. A man has by that time, maybe, gained a fortune to discover that the pleasures he hoped to purchase with it have ceased to be pleasures. A deadly monotony has set in. We have got to the bottom of things, have seen the whole show and begin to find it wearisome. This note, supposedly a modern one, is really nothing of the kind. The whole flavour of the sentiment had been tasted nigh two millenniums ago by Marcus Aurelius. "A little while," says he, "is enough to view the world in, for things are repeated and come over again apace. It signifies not a farthing whether a man stands gazing here a hundred, or a hundred thousand years, for all he gets by it is to see the same sights so much the oftener." It is the unhappiness of some men at this period to find in Nature's freshest products nothing new or inspiring. Goethe, in one of his autobiographical notes, remarks of a contemporary that " he saw with vexation the green of spring and wished that by way of change it might once appear red." The German would have found a sympathiser in our Walter Pater who, it is recorded, regarded it as an annual affliction to have to "look upon the raw greens of spring."
But there is even worse than this. Some physiologists and some psychologists have not hesitated to maintain that there is a decay of moral enthusiasm in life's after period which renders the average man after middle age less ethically valuable. And any one wishing to maintain this thesis need not lack evidence. History is full of stories of a youth of high moral promise dashed by the later years. Had Henry VIII. died young he would have appeared in our annals as a hero instead of a monster. Nero, when the pupil of Seneca, had excellent inspirations. In reading Plutarch's life of Alexander one is struck with his deterioration of character, from the earlier warmth and generosity to that later caprice and cruelty which showed in his alienation from Aristotle, and in the murder of his old friends Clitus and Parmenio. The "religious rogue " of modern times is commonly a man who unscrupulously exploits the confidence secured to him by a profession which in his earlier days had sincerity behind it. The inner deterioration experienced by some men in their later life was expressed in somewhat startling fashion to the present writer, years ago, by a noted minister of religion of his day. "It is you young men," said he, " who must start the new ventures. It is no use looking to us old fellows, who believe in nothing and nobody 1 "
All this is evidence of something being seriously wrong somewhere. To declare half of our life to be necessarily a failure is to bring an indictment against life altogether. As it stands, the indictment suggests one of two alternatives. Either the order of the universe which ordains old age is faulty, or the failure lies in our interpretation of, and obedience to, that order. The matter is not cleared, but still further complicated by a Church teaching, for centuries in vogue, which has depreciated the present earthly life, with its old age included, in favour of a future life elsewhere. It is astonishing that Christian teachers have not more generally seen the falseness of this view. To put the "now" and " here" of earth in such complete opposition to the "then" and " there " of heaven is to endeavour to extract from time and place what they were never intended to yield. If the life in God, the satisfying life as revealed in and by Christ, cannot be lived here and now, it can be lived nowhere and nowhen.
We come back, then, to our opening suggestion, in which the view of life as a probation is taken in the sense that the after part reaps what the earlier part has sown. The failure, where failure there is, lies not in the game, but in our way of playing it. Properly understood and followed, the human career, if we interpret it rightly, should to its very end be full of freshness and benediction. The whole business resolves itself into the question whether life's after part is to be considered by us as a decline or as part of a growth. To point to physical and even to some aspects of mental deterioration as evidence that it is a decay is, be it here observed, quite beside the mark. Decay is always going on somewhere, in every part of the career. The foetus life in some of its aspects perishes when the child is born. Infancy and adolescence have severally their growth, culmination and ending as the boy pushes on to wards the man. The whole point lies in what we are thinking of when we talk about life's decline. If it be physical powers and enjoyments, or even some forms of mentality, there is no possible controversy, for no one disputes the facts. Unquestionably if this is all man is or has, the pessimists are right, and his later life is a pitiable business, about which the less said the better.
But may we not see in Nature's blunt exhibition of the failure of this side of old age in this thrusting of it in all its nakedness before our eyes her effort to awaken us to a deeper conception ? It is, indeed, only in the light of that conception that it becomes to us at all intelligible. But in that light everything assumes a new aspect. Man appears to us at this period as a being full of desires and thirsts which the world he has passed through no longer attempts to satisfy, to which the organs of sense fail to respond, for which nothing that is of the seen or of the flesh is an answer. This unquenched desire, if it be not a mockery, is surely for him the greatest of prophecies. Naked indeed is he, if there be not an invisible with which he is being clothed upon ! Dying also, but if he be awake to the proper significance of himself, he will realise now that what in him is dying is no more his truest and deepest than was the passing away in him of the child when he became a man.
It is well to persuade ourselves, and the sooner in life the better, that there is no possible way of making our "after middle age" a success except this one of accepting ourselves as in this world mainly and ultimately for spiritual growth. It is this only which will save that after period from monotony. And it does save it most effectually. Aurelius is wrong here. We do not see the same show over again. As our inner nature opens our world becomes ever more beautiful, more mystically inspired. If each new spring does not bring us a deeper message it is because we have been neglecting our inner life. To the growing soul the world is ever miraculously renewing itself. Our fellow-men grow always dearer to us, always more interesting. And how much more interesting does God become !
It is this principle alone, too, which preserves from age's otherwise inevitable moral wastage. If we do not take faith's leap and "catch on" to life's higher order we shall certainly develop the moral wrinkles " of which Montaigne speaks. But let no one believe in any psycho-logical necessity here. Paul and Augustine, John Wesley and Catherine Booth did not grow worse as they grew older ; they grew better ; they ripened. And when with some of these, a period has been reached in which the desire to remain longer in the world has visibly lessened, this means, not a diminishing of interest in life, but a preparedness for the next evolution of it.
As years assist
such spirits gain so ravishing a sense of that " life beyond the bridge " that they long to join themselves unto it.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
A Roomier Universe
The Divine Indifference
Truth's Spiritual Equivalents
The Inwardness Of Events
The Sins Of Saints
The World's Beauty
Of Face Architecture
Westward Of Fifty
The Art Of Happiness
The Mission Of Illusion
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