Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 13: Human Experience > Chapter 3: Youth and Age
Youth and Age
Reflections on youth
Among the young there is a section which, if it could be convinced that there is a higher purpose in life, would respond to the call. There is also another section which would not respond because it is stupefied by life, passion, and, especially, negative feelings.
Young persons, whose enthusiasm is fresh and whose minds are open, especially need to become convinced by these teachings. In this way they would not only lay one of the best possible foundations for their future, but also be of the greatest possible service to others.
The young do not know, but some among them want to know. They want to know why they are here and what is the purpose of their lives, how they are to conduct themselves, and whether or not there is a deity. But for all this they need guidance and they need instruction. They come more quickly with faith to a teaching than their elders do, and that which could be their uplift could also be their downfall. For they are more easily misled than their elders. Those who know and can ought to do something to assist them.
Those who come to this quest in their early years--with all the hopes, enthusiasms and energies of youth--are lucky. But they have also the naïveté, inexperience, imbalance, and unrealistic expectations of youth.
A new type of youngster has been coming into incarnation since the war--or rather types, for there are good, bad, and mixed among them. They are different from the earlier generations. Here and there one finds open minds with wider outlook who are seeking Truth and that are not limited to their background, their environment, or their traditions, but imbued with a willingness to look to the Orient also.
Youth rightly refuses to be overwhelmed by tradition but wrongly refuses to take up its share of tradition.
Contemporary youth has been born into a world where for the first time they can see as a definite possibility destruction of life upon this planet, including human life everywhere. Inevitably and naturally they protest, some very violently, against this immoral misorganization which their elders have brought about.
Those of the young who fiercely reject all restrictions which hamper their freedom because they want to be themselves, to keep their individuality, are right in a blind unseeing uninformed way. They are free to be their best selves. Until they recognize this truth they need control, from within and from without.
Youth would be better advised to sift out and preserve whatever spiritual values may be found in the past and combine them with the best material values of our own day.
The young have had courage and honesty but in losing faith they have lost discipline and replaced society's old follies with new ones.
To young idealists it is among the important things in life to seek for its secrets, to question why they are here, and not to stop until there is some kind of answer.
Somewhere between youth's vital exuberant faith and age's blasé withered sleep there is the right attitude. Somewhere there is a state of mind which lacks youth's faculty of self-deception and rejects age's pessimistic summing-up of it all.
With the young, theories necessarily take the place of experience; with the old it is the reverse; with both there may be a foolish unbalance.
Although I deplore the condemnation of everything bygone, everything old, which is indulged in by so many of the young today, I agree with them that new times may bring new forms of inspiration and that the Truth, the Reality, does not necessarily have to be tied to tradition or look heavy with age or be stiff with the shapes given to it by our forefathers; it can be new, fresh, vivid, original. I include under this heading not only religious and metaphysical matters, but also artistic ones.
Too many of those who rebel against the old forms, whether of society, art, thought, or politics, demand new forms vociferously--but why should the new be worthier than the old? It may be, but it is not to be welcomed merely because it is new. It is to be welcomed when it gives a chance to be better than the old.
The idea of authority is hotly contested by the young, who fail to see that it is just as necessary as the idea of non-authority or freedom. This is true whether it is imposed on us by the higher laws governing existence or by other persons who are qualified to do so or even imposed by ourselves in the form of ideals and standards.
Where traditional views no longer conform to contemporary knowledge and needs, adaptation, sometimes even reform, must be brought in wisely. The older persons, fearful of change, resist it. So the pressures of life use the younger ones, who are more open to it but who often move too hastily, too far, and too unwisely. But they are a necessary counterbalance until a new generation arises which learns, accepts, and understands the World-Idea and seeks to live in harmony with it.
In the end it will be to the good that so many of the young are scrutinizing the values and institutions of the society in which they are born, that they are asking troublesome questions, and that they are concerned with the ultimate ends of all these activities. Most of us who were born in an earlier generation may deplore and criticize the violence, the folly, and the unbalance with which this re-examination (and its accompanying protests) is being made, but the need to explore new ways is plain.
It is when he is close to the period of puberty that these oppositional tendencies get strong enough to plainly assert themselves. From then on, the presence of inner conflict is felt as a feature of the moral character.
Of what use is it that a young man shall have the admirable strength of a lion if he also has the stubborn foolishness of an ass and the undisciplined passions of a goat? Balanced growth is better.
Life is stretching before the young person as a wonderfully interesting adventure, and the future is his chance to bring out all that is best in him.
The eagerness to acquire social position and to accumulate worldly possessions is more likely to be found in younger than in older persons.
The young feel too fresh, too alive, to concede that they also will grow old, feeble, haggard.
That period when he is half-youth, half-man is a dangerous one for a growing person. For the passions of anger and lust appear but the reason and willpower wherewith to control them do not yet develop.
If the young are to judge aright, they must call in and consider the experience and intellect of the old to help them. This does not at all mean that the old are to judge for them. On the contrary, the young are entitled to criticize severely and scrutinize cautiously whatever advice they receive. Too often, the old have lost vision and dropped idealism. Too often, only the young possess these important attributes.
While young, their minds are conditioned by the limitations of their elders, by the moral level of their times, by forceful appeals to passion and emotion uncountered by reason or experience.
The young wish to free themselves not only from outworn ideas and modes, which may be a good move, but also from what they consider outworn virtues, which may be a bad one. The qualities of character and the patterns of behaviour which society esteems are not all to be rejected.
The young experimented with turning their inherited way of life not only upside-down but also inside-out. The results have taught them to be cautious.
Some of us have gone a little way beyond the cup of youth, but have not gone so far as to taste the bitterness that rises into the life of all who desert the simple instinct of reverence which walked beside them in the childhood years.
The young advance eagerly toward the embrace of life, the old withdraw from it.
As the old questions about existence--whether of man, the universe, or God--clamour in the mind for answers, a conflict goes on inside the young and educated about what they are to do with their lives.
The proper attitude for a young person not too far from the threshold of adulthood is to keep his mind open, not shut in dogmatic slogans, too often themselves the result of half-true, half-false suggestions received from other minds.
It is one of the special services of youth to prod its elders into action, and to spur a trend or reform into faster pace.
It is particularly the young who ought to feel the wish to better character and ennoble life, the desire for self-improvement.
It is right that a young man should want to rise higher in his chosen career, should struggle for the best and strive for the Ideal.
The young are more likely to hold these new ideas and generous ideals, and hold them enthusiastically. They are virile enough to count action as a twin inseparable from thought.
Authority, against which the young rebel, has its place however much those who filled that place in the past abused it and misused it.
Past traditions may contain knowledge based on experience: they should be scrutinized, sifted, and tested, not ridiculed and rejected merely because of age.
It is a valuable part of a young person's earlier life to seek out the adept and the sage, to take advantage of the opportunity of sitting in contemplation with them, and to question them about the Way and its Goal.
The young experiment, seeking thrills, excitements, adventures--using the body, the passions, imagination, drugs, sports, contests, music, and noise. A few respond to worthy ideals, others to debased ones. The greatest adventure--the quest--has its adherents too but too often they are led into semi-lunacy.
Driven by passion and deluded by romance, the young will have to drink their wine and have it turn sour on them often, until they weary of the repetition and turn away to a correct balance.
These young dissenters from the establishment, whose methods procedures and practices are so often naïve childish and amateurish, are yet in a number of cases pioneers of new ways to come, of the movement towards the Overself. On the other hand, among these dissenting groups there are others who manifest evil characteristics and instead of leading towards the spirit, they are leading towards degradation and materialism.
Too young to understand either himself or the world, too inexperienced to perceive the illusions and traps in life, he easily falls victim to powerful leaders who are really misleaders or to agitators whose aims are solely destructive or to religious prophets whose person and message are half-insane.
Only stupid or insensitive persons will use a right saying such as "clothes do not make the man" to support an action such as wearing trousers with one leg black, the other white. Such bizarre dress may be fashionable among certain members of the younger generation today, but it is also expressive of unbalanced, bizarre minds.
If we want to win the young to any cause we must appeal to their emotion and imagination, to their capacity for enthusiasm, and to their willingness to make experiments.
One may admire those young people who refuse to fall into line with those modern ways of earning a livelihood which they call "the rat race" and who prefer to drop out of it. But merely to drop out in a negative way and do nothing further or constructive about the situation is no advance on the conformists and leads to sloth or idleness. Others have tried to organize the dropouts by groups, into communes where they practise co-operative living. Most of these have a short life and are then abandoned, but at least they represent an attempt to be constructive. All this shows that a new kind of economy is needed but has still to be found.
It is to be hoped that many fine young people who are facing great hardships will become the pioneers of that new age of practical spirituality which advanced spirits ardently desire to see inaugurated.
We all laugh at the tradition that the man of self-supposed or obvious genius must make tracks for Chelsea if he lives in England, or for Greenwich Village if he abides in the United States; must wear his hair a little longer than the Philistines, knock his head daily against a garret ceiling, and be satisfied with bread and cheese until Fortune picks him out as her favourite. We laugh at this, I say, yet the young man may not be such a fool as we commonly think. That rich and rare enthusiasm of his youth may come from Something higher than his conscious self; these brave, if bitter, fights with a mammon-centered civilization may receive urge and stimulus from the Spiritual Warrior within.
Sometimes, if guided by real inspiration, naïve innocence and high-flying idealism marry successfully; but more times, if they are inspired by emotion alone and are quite irrelevant to the facts of a situation, they do not.
Philo sadly noted that only a few of the young men of his time took philosophy seriously enough to heed its counsels and study its wisdom. True, they often went to lectures (since this was in Alexandria), but, he complained, they took their business affairs with them, so that what they heard was not listened to properly or, if listened to, was forgotten as soon as they made their exit from the hall.
The human being cannot be kept forever in the child state, neither physically nor mentally, neither in the home nor in the church. This must be recognized if we are to have fewer problems, less friction, more understanding, and more harmony.
There are shortcomings in every area of society. But this is not reason enough for joining the ranks of those who would precipitate chaos, destroy society, and, they fondly hope, start afresh. Students who follow such leadership would find themselves, in the end, completely misled. For what would follow would not only be a new and equally large set of shortcomings, but a cruel tyranny which would necessarily enforce the changes. But this is no excuse for society to remain static, to resist the penetrating renewals it needs.
Throwing away the accumulated knowledge, the truths, the skills, the quality, the forms, and the values inherited from the past, merely because they are traditional and aged, does not necessarily provide the young iconoclasts with creative power and inspiration.
Their elders do not move quickly enough to alter society to youth's satisfaction--hence its violence. But it is the elders who have the experience, judgement, knowledge, and power, even if they lack the will. Change will come, but the two classes must get together if it is not to come through catastrophe.
The culture, the education, the arts and styles--yes, it must be said, even the religion--inherited from the past belong to the past. The young need a new world, a better one, a new way of life and thought, even a new diet in food and drink.
Our sympathy goes out particularly to young seekers. They are perforce inexperienced in the ways of the spirit and the ways of the world. They are often bewildered by the contradictions and differences between schools of thought. Their enthusiasm is warmer and their idealism more generous, which makes them more liable to errors in thought and blunders in conduct. Their need of guidance is both evident and urgent.
The Stoic teaching that passion should be controlled by reason does not appeal to today's younger generation. But its merit remains.
These young street-hooligans who "cosh" harmless old people or rob small shopkeepers with violence are savages dressed up in the garb of civilized beings. But they have not even the advantages of tribal laws and taboos and standards that savages have, for they have no upbringing, no manners at all.
It is the lot of most young people either to be wanting to enter that transitory emotional condition which is falling in love or to be trying to.
The Angry Young Men, who write bitter pieces about squalid environments and personal frustrations, see no spiritual joy in life, no divine harmony back of the universe.
The young, with their passing enthusiasms, their undiscriminating evaluations, and their unconsidered decisions, should avoid irrevocable commitments.
Misled by coarse materialists into hatred, violence, and destructive activity, the idealistic young fall into error and confusion.
In today's world, adolescents have a confused and sometimes even dangerous outlook. Not a few new excitements come into their being; the taste for emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual adventure disturbs their balance.
It is good that the young are trying to work out ideas and paths for themselves. We must praise their independence. But it is not good if they express smart cynicisms at the expense of their elders merely because of the difference in age. It is worse if they make savage attacks on others who follow traditional, orthodox, or conservative customs and, especially, conservative good manners.
Do not ask from a child the intellectual comprehension which only a grown-up person can give.
The limited character of the conditions under which most humans have to live and the adverse character of so many of the experiences they meet with, the millions of hearts filled with tormenting restlessness and frustrated longings and the millions of heads filled with uncertainties and strivings, the inescapable orbit of pleasures followed by pains and of attractions succeeded by repulsions, preclude the attainment or retainment of real happiness. The unsatisfactory final character of life's pleasures and the disappointments in the expectations it fosters are not so apparent, however, to the inexperienced young as to the well-experienced aged. Nevertheless, we have yet to meet the man, however young and enthusiastic he may be, who is fully satisfied with what he has got, or who is not dissatisfied because of what he has not got.
"O son, though thou art young, be old in understanding. I do not bid thee not to play the youth, but be a youth self-controlled. Be watchful and not deceived by thy youth." This advice is from Qabus Nama, an eleventh-century Persian book of conduct. It was written as instruction for his son by a prince on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.
We elders have something to learn from the younger generation today, as they have a lot to learn from us. It is among them that sympathetic reception for higher knowledge is mostly found today.
A time comes to turn from youth and become a man, to put aside sloppy sentimentality and look at the hard realities which must be lived with.
It is proper for the young to be ambitious, to develop their potential capacities and improve their personalities. But they should not be left with the idea that this is all that life requires from them.
There is both good and bad in the spirit of revolt which so many students show. The good is a challenge to seek truth, an alarm to wake up from moral sleep and mental sloth.
Youth--and in some cases it extends into the thirties--with its inexperience, naïveté, imaginativeness, romanticism, and immaturity--easily falls into illusion, glamour, or a sloppy sentimentality.
What the young do not know is that while they may revere or worship some older person for a special talent, or romantically fall in love with some girl for her beauty, to live with the one or the other in close association for many years may prove an unpleasant experience.
He is too fastidious to accept the unwashed dirty clothes and bodies, the jerky slangy careless speech, the crude, often rude, arrogant ill-bred manners of the boorish, without some feeling of repulsion. After all, even Lao Tzu was a protester, but he still remained a refined gentleman in manners.
Once past the age of puberty, it is to be expected that young persons want experience, for they know that this is the period of initiation into life's possibilities and of preparation for adulthood. But through their very ignorance they fall more easily into the lures of drugs, promiscuity, alcohol.
They know what it is to be young. They do not know what it is to grow old.
But the generations move on and these young persons will become old ones.
If he has a protest to make, let him do so in a civilized manner. Being young does not excuse him (any more than does being old) from the requirement of normal decency, that he conduct himself properly when among others, with some measure of self-control and self-restraint.
The ancient civilizations of China and India traditionally respected, even venerated, the aged. Such was the high value assigned to experience. But modern civilization has reversed this attitude, denounced its older generation, and let its younger ones take the lead. The less experience, the more honours! The defiant ones, the angry ones, the rebellious ones, shape our thought, clothes, ideas, manners, morals.
Youth with its vigour gets needed action, with its hope formulates needed changes.
The young man who has not yet been ambushed and captured by ambition and sensuality is susceptible to enthusiastic idealism.
Neither a tame conformity nor a wild rebelliousness is helpful to most youths.
If the young lack the quality of reverence, is it not because nothing and nobody within their experience so far has seemed worthy of it?
If so many young people reject the moral codes which they have inherited as well as the social aims which are put upon them, it might be worthwhile for society to practise some self-criticism.
It is the instinct of the young to seek satisfaction of their passions and emotions untempered by caution and undisciplined by prudence.
I am with the young in their revolt against the limited concepts of a civilization which does not know or care about the dangerous and undesirable goal toward which it is moving. But I leave them when they become either parasitical drifters, unkempt and unclean, or violent destructive protesters who naïvely imagine that anarchy and chaos will automatically be followed by a state paradise.
The picturesque appellation of American slang to these young fugitives from the whole educational-economic system--"dropouts from the rat race"--implies a mentality of negative criticism of modern society which usually is sterile. Such persons take as alternatives an aimless existence of drifting, hitchhiking, drugs, sex, petty theft, or other things. Sadhus, faqueers, monks, nuns, and hermits may also be fugitives, yet their reaction is positive and affirmative. They have replaced the lost aim in life by what seems to them to be a higher one, by the cultivation of the soul, by the labours of self-purification and holiness or by the exploration of the spiritual consciousness. Some even devote themselves to the service of humanity in some form. All accept, at least theoretically, a moral restraint absent in the other group.
If the irate youngsters among us feel so strongly that they have something to give society in leading the way to reform or renovation of varied activities, we ripened elders have also something to give--what they lack but what their proposed changes need. We know for a start, what is impracticable. We know, where the pitfalls are. We know the difference between well-conceived proposals based on the facts of life and the other kind. We have learned, or had to learn, to live in society with responsibility.
The young need guidance, it is true, and so need to accept the authority of elders who have had more experience until they can replace it by their own. But they ought not claim this freedom prematurely or in its totality when they are only partially ready for it.
Whatever a man's work be in the world, whether he be close to the earth--and hence Nature--or far from it in an office, his life was never intended to become trapped only in that, concerned only with that. In a confused way, half-blind but instinctive, this is one of the promptings behind the violent protest and even rebellion of the postwar youth.
Let the mass of those who disagree with society's goals and ways protest in their own young rebellious manner, but the better-balanced will not turn to such destructiveness. They will set up a constructive attitude, a positive manner, and produce practical affirmations rather than sterile negations.
Today the adventurous young are uncovering the texts and truths which lie outside the boundaries of official schooling, but they are also--alas!--wading into marshlands where dubious practices and cults take their energies and minds.
Balance is a quality which youth seldom shows yet sorely needs.
The younger generation not only insists on understanding but also on feeling. Hence their interest in psychedelic drugs.
We see the young too often misled into embracing erroneous, distorted, or illusory ideals. It is pathetic, but they are usually too insistent on buying their own experience so they must pay the price.
People talk of the innocence of a child, but some children are so vicious that they will pull the wings off a captured fly.
The young are easily caught by superficial slogans and illogical arguments because they lack the patience, the balance, and the mental equipment to look beneath slogans and arguments.
The young are tired of bloodless sermons and dead observances--they demand living truths.
To deny the worth of traditions altogether, as young rebels and protesters, wrongly in some cases and rightly in others, so often do, is to deny the value of the very things whose use makes the denial possible: the experiences, skills, crafts, creations, knowledge, labours, and environments now inherited.
There is too much destructive criticism among younger people, too little positive thinking, too much scavenging and debunking.
A stirred and awakened section of the people, mostly young, protest against the pollutions of air, earth, water, and food we suffer from. What of the degradations of character too?
The demolition of society is sought by communists; of the materialism which supports both capitalist and communist societies, by idealists. For materialism, especially when allied to technology, mutilates the human beings caught in it.
We make so many mistakes, especially when young, through sheer inexperience that it is not fair to ourselves to accept the blame for them.
Our generation has seen many women and young men come nearer their own. It was right and reasonable that masculine tyranny should go and that senile governance should be overthrown. This long overdue and much welcome advance is admirable, but it does not justify going to the farther extreme of romantic idealization of anyone and everyone merely because he is young and she is a woman. The danger of this species of thinking and this course of action, which have always led in the end to disaster, is that they still infatuate young, shallow minds. From the silly notion that the old would make no mistakes, we are in danger of swinging pendulum-like to the equally silly notion that the young can make no mistakes. Nearly all the leaders of Nazi Germany were young men. Yet the mess into which they got their own country and indeed all Europe was unparalleled in history.
The wild feelings which make these young people sneer at the pursuit of virtue and applaud the practice of violence spring from their lower nature.
The younger generation, which mistook its cynical sophistication for wisdom and its exuberant worldliness for realism, got unwelcome shocks and unpleasant surprises when it had to face the war.
Humanity is not so enlightened in our times that it can afford to dispense with the best thoughts of former times.
In an atmosphere of world unrest, religious dryness, political selfishness, and sexual saturation, it is not surprising that so many of the young go intellectually astray and get morally lost.
The miserable mental confusion of so many young rebels is pathetic, but it is also perilous to society. Apart from a minority of intelligent idealists, who sooner or later separate themselves individually from their mixed-up contemporaries, the others are neurotic and irresponsible drifters, dirty in clothes and bodies, compulsive and impulsive, victims of false teachings or hallucinatory ideas. If this was truer of the 1960s in America it is still true in other countries.
It is out of their despairs and disillusions that some of the young have turned to violence.
If this hostility of the young is allowed to proceed to its extreme point, not freedom but chaos and anarchy must be the consequence.
It is absurd for the young rebels to try to sever themselves completely from the past. It simply cannot be done. The attitude which they should adopt is to take what is worthwhile from the past and discard the rest. But the influence of the past is present, whether they want it or not. Change is governing every phase of life, every period of a single lifetime, and every phase of this planet's history. Unless this is recognized and reckoned with in our practical dealings, we are bound to suffer because of our attachments to objects, things, persons, and ideas.
The young person today standing on the threshold of adulthood should use this propitious time to analyse past experience for its practical and spiritual lessons; also to formulate ideals and aspirations, as well as plans for future life. Such mental pictures, when strongly held before the mind's eye and taken as subjects for concentration, have creative value and tend to influence physical conditions. They should be accompanied by silent, heartfelt prayer for strength, balance, wisdom, and guidance.
Reflections in old age
Old age is a time to gather up one's good points, one's few strengths, as squirrels gather their food for the coming winter.
The young do not know the melancholy ponderings on the brevity of human experience which come to the generation whose time is nearly run out, or the subsequent futility of all those ambitions which drive men through the vital years, or the final emptiness of all those fleshly experiences which titillate the senses. Buddha has persistently emphasized these frustrations in his teachings, yet it is the need and work of a philosopher to come to terms with age, to accommodate more equably the other things in his life.
Age slows down the energies and withers the ambitions; too often it halts the aspirations.
Cynicism comes easily to the old, idealism to the young, but one day--in a later incarnation perhaps--both may learn that they cannot have life on their own terms: destiny predominates, for there is a World-Idea and a karmic adjustment.
In the evening of one's life, there should be the proper attribute--dignity.
Aged people discover not only that the world does not want them, but also that they do not want the world. The withdrawal from one another tends to be mutual. I speak, of course, only of those who keep to Nature's rhythms, not of those modern creatures who ignore its message that age is a time for reflection, not bustling action; for severance of attachments, not for clinging harder to them. This artificial juvenility which they affect would have been pitied by Manu, the ancient Hindu lawgiver, who allotted four age-periods to each human life, the last for concentration on spiritual concerns.
It is questionable whether the young are able to judge values correctly. But then it is equally questionable whether the old, in their smug complacency, are willing to judge them correctly.
There is a healthy, wise, and necessary conservatism and a stuffy, stupid, and obsolete conservatism. The distinction between them must be kept clear.
If the years bring him a larger outlook, as I feel they have brought me (and I am nearer seventy than sixty), old truths come alive with new meaning.
The dogmas learned in youth may enter into the revelation learned in maturity.
Those whose good fortune has given them enough to satisfy many desires ought not wait for old age to see how these satisfactions were passing and uncertain. They ought to do the heroic thing and detach themselves from the desire while there is still vigour in their feeling and their will.
The old find themselves beyond the reach of passions and the touch of mad impulses. For many there is peace and for some almost a candidature for saintliness.
Old infirm people who become weary of the body and hence weary of themselves have no way out except the larger identification with something larger than the body self.
An intuitive wisdom may come with the years, which will serve better than calculated information.
Who, in a lifetime's history, fell into no indefensible activities, avoided all bad judgements, and made no serious mistakes?
Red passion cools with greyed age.
The withdrawals from activity and worldliness which he refuses to make willingly at the behest of reason, may have to be made unwillingly with the coming of age.
The elderly who have come at last to accept the unlikeable fact of their age, but who do so with rebellious groans and emotional melancholy, learn by bitter experience in every department of their existence that it is a fact which cannot be ignored.
Among the benefits of old age is the fact that one can look back and try to comprehend what one had to do to uplift oneself in this lifetime. While one was involved in the experiences, their real lessons were too often obscured by unbalanced emotion or blocked by fast-held ego.
The instinctive urge to go back home after a period of absence comes to young children and to old men. Not only is some comfort expected there, but also a kind of safety, a form of security. It might even be called a private refuge from the all-too-public world.
Why go back to the hopes of youth--however exciting--if their cost is the deceitful illusions of youth?
Plato suggests the age of fifty to be a suitable turning point for a man to pass over from mere experience of life to constant meditation upon the higher purpose of life. Cephalus, the patriarch in Plato's Republic, was glad to be free from the lusts of youth, which he denounced as tyrannical, and to be in the state of relative peace which, he asserted, comes with old age.
Youth cries out for romance and love. The silencing of that cry naturally and properly belongs to age. Yet it seems a pity that this early enthusiasm and tumultuous energy, which could in most cases partially and in some cases even wholly be devoted to the quest, should not be so used.
Youth is progressive, age is conservative. Both tendencies are needed, but they are not needed in equal proportions. Sometimes the one should be emphasized more weightily, sometimes the other.
Those who have reached the middle years are likely to know more about life than those who have not. They are certainly more capable of sustaining attention and concentration than callow youths. Hence they are better able to receive the truth and to accept the value of philosophy than the young. Old age ought to become the tranquil period which ruminates over the folly and wisdom of its memories; it is to reflect upon, and study well, the lessons garnered from experience.
Why is it that elderly persons tend to become more religious as well as more sickly than younger ones? All the usual answers may be quite correct on their own levels, but there is one on another and deeper level which is the ultimate answer. The life-energy of the Overself flowing into and pervading the physical body begins, in middle age, a reaction toward its source. The individual's resistance to the attack of disease is consequently less than it was before. His interest in and attraction to the objects of physical desires begin to grow less, too, while the force that went into them now begins to go toward the Overself. When this reversal expresses itself in its simplest form, the individual becomes religious. When the energy ceases to pervade the body, death follows.
There is a pattern of growth in all the different parts of a human being. If man reaches his physical maturity in the twenties, he reaches his intellectual maturity in the thirties, emotional maturity in the forties, and intuitional in the fifties. This is one of the reasons why those who are really interested in religion and mysticism come so largely from the middle-aged and elderly group.
It was formerly believed that one advantage--or disadvantage, depending on the point of view--of old age was the reduction or even disappearance of youthful passions, especially sexual passions. But this is true in some cases, not in others.
Men are apt to complain of old age: Buddha even listed it as one of the sights which set him on his course to search for a way out of life's suffering. But there is one advantage of being an old man: one will not easily accept illusions for the sake of their false comfort.
The disadvantages of being a celebrity, the fatuity of worldly honours, are more likely to be recognized by the old than by the young.
In old age he accepts the need to release himself from ties which formerly held so much interest for him, but now assume the shape of burdens--or else of obligations for which the strength is lacking.
Those who have reached the seventh decade of life and fulfilled the biblical span of years have usually suffered enough troubles and calamities to become somewhat dulled by the suffering when a new trouble appears. It does not have the same force, the same weight as the others. The reaction is slower and less; their feelings may perhaps be translated as: this is part of human existence, this too may pass.
Just as sex makes him delight in the flesh, so sickness makes him repelled by it. Out of the balance which is struck between them, he may glean a truer understanding of life. Hence it is the wisdom of the Universal Mind which places sex commonest in the early part of his earthly existence and sickness commonest in the later part. If men and women take to religion or reflection in their middle years, it is because they have by then accumulated enough data to arrive at better attitudes or juster conclusions.
In a young man ambition is a virtue, but in an old man it is a vice.
It is to the chronically infirm and the rapidly aging that moments or moods of the futility in life come all too often. It is not only the consequence of disgust with their general condition. It is also the beginning of a forced almost Buddhistic reflectiveness. For questions come with the condition. What is the use of going on with such an unsatisfactory condition? It serves no purpose useful to them or to others. This dissatisfaction becomes the source of their much-belated look into the meaning of life itself. Hitherto their interest was not so wide nor so deep: self, body, family, possessions--such was their limit.
Look at the last cycle, the last years, of a fully ripened man. Clemenceau took to Vedanta as did Jung, Thomas Merton to Buddhism.
He reaches with old age less cynicism than the refusal to accept illusions.
Bernard Shaw somewhere insists that all men who are over forty--presumably with the exception of himself--are scoundrels. Perhaps. But they are also potential philosophers. For I do not believe that it is possible to arrive at the breadth and depth, the balance and perception, which must mark the approach to philosophy, before that age.
Year after year it all recedes, the expectations and the dreams, until desires diminish and ambitions fade.
The closing years of life should bring a man to recognize its moral affirmation, if he failed to do so earlier.
When our eyes are focused too closely on our experiences, we are apt to distort or exaggerate them. But when we can see them from the distance afforded by later years, we can take advantage of better perspective and thus gain a truer sight. This is one value of ageing years.
With the years moved over a man's head into old age, regrets, confessions, and disheartening recognitions are less reluctantly forced from him.
The tendencies of the period take a man along with them, the atmosphere absorbs him, and it may not be until middle life when time, experience, maturity, suffering, disillusionment, and revelation have done their work that he comes to realize what has happened to him and asserts his spiritual independence.
Looking back on the past years, be they thirty or sixty, all seems now a dreamlike experience.
Another disadvantage shared by some old people is loss of continuity of consciousness. This shows in failure to concentrate attention or remember names, and inability to hold the full length of a sentence in mind.
If the body did not wither or fail us in our needs, this could be such a beautiful time, with all the fullness of art, culture, intellect, even spirituality within our understanding. But the snows of old age are falling; and soon . . .
In passing through the last season of the body's life, the chill winter of old age, he passes through a series of deprivations and losses. If in the past he thought too optimistically of life and enjoyed the body's pleasures, now he is forced to revise his views and redress the balance.
The prospect of becoming too old to stir out of the house, or too ill to stir out of bed, too helpless to depend on their own efforts, frightens prouder souls.
So many persons of my generation have passed on that it is hard to remember which ones are still living and which are not. It is all a grim reminder of my own precarious position. The menace is countered by two qualities the years have taught me to seek: resignation and calm.
I am too conscious of belonging to a generation widely different from theirs, alien in too many ways from theirs, so that as old friends die off or move into distant silence I do not venture to replace them. Solitude surrounds me more and more, but I accept it contentedly.
Cicero tried to console the aged by writing a very lengthy essay counselling them to ignore their difficulties and pointing to the compensations they possess. But I suspect that most of the readers it is intended for will be more irritated than helped, more annoyed than comforted, by its somewhat unconvincing pages.
Old age brings its infirmities and enfeeblements, its humiliations and lonelinesses, its feelings of being useless and being unwanted.
Those who feel the hopelessness of old age probably outnumber those who reconcile themselves to it resignedly.
Adolescents have more of the joy of living and particularly express it through song and dance. Old age has more of the burden and misery of living.
There is a lack of joie-de-vivre in old persons and an abundance of it in young ones. The feeling of getting near life's greatest ordeal is not pleasant and is even depressing.
Certain undesired features attend human life on this earth in every land and among every people. Birth and growth are followed by the ageing and slowing-up processes which culminate in death. Parting from those we love and association with those who are disagreeable are forced on all of us at some time.
Life, which too often seemed like a comedy in the past, may seem more like a tragic futility in the dismal last period of old age.
Sophocles, in his calm, wise, but afflicted old age, wrote, ". . . at the end Age, housed with sorrow, claims us," and also, sadly expectant, "At last, to make an end . . . the dance done, every guest has gone, save Death, the one last friend."
The old, the elderly, and even the middle-aged become subject to anxieties pertaining to health or fortune, relationships or events, which the young seldom have. If it be true, as Cicero asserted, that age gives them the peace of freedom from passions--which if true is only partially so--then the price has to be paid in the currency of these anxieties.
Age brings loneliness and lowered vitality. Friends move away, fall away, or die off, and their reassuring nearness is no more. Stairs become harder to climb, streets harder to walk. Life seems futile: a heavy fatalism settles over the will.
A death of someone loved or respected may come as a shock, but time dwindles its force, resignation lessens its sadness.
It is the testimony of all experience that good fortune and misfortune are intertwined. Those who do not see this when young will discover it later, for good and ill appear at separate times often, but together when old. Life is thus a paradox, but also a series of compensations.
This increasing loss of memory which afflicts so many elderly people need not be a cause of emotional depression, as it so often is: we have more likelihood of some measure of mental peace when the burden of unneeded or excessive memories falls away. It is something for which to be grateful.
If age makes more people more rigid and less doubtful about their opinions and beliefs, it makes a few humbler, questioning.
The pathetic bleakness of old age is balanced by the wisdom of experience. The pleasures of the senses may be less, or even no longer, available. But the fruition of knowledge is.
If the elderly man is to be saddened because the energy and enthusiasm for his best actions lie behind him in the past, he is also to be gladdened because the impulsions toward his worst actions lie there too.
Every period of life, from childhood up to old age, has its limitations, its lacks and deficiencies, but it also has its compensations. If the old have unhappy periods because of their infirmities, the young have unhappy moods because of their uncertainties.
For those without a higher viewpoint, the prospect of old age is a difficult one. The clever attractive modern cosmetics may take the years off a woman's appearance but they remain--oppressive and disturbing--within her consciousness. Early enthusiasm for living must, in the end, give way to a saddened recognition of our mortality. Reflection warns both woman and man of the frustrations awaiting human desire, but it also tells them of the compensations. These, however, must be earned. Foremost comes peace of mind.
It is not pleasant to reach old age. One tires easily--not only physically but also mentally--and one begins to weary of the routines of merely living, performing similar acts day after day. I speak of course of the average person, mass humanity--but one who has kept his mind alive, alert, eager to know, learn, and understand, who has developed his inmost resources cultural and spiritual, can never get bored.
It is true that a wider and longer experience than the average may toughen a man's will and harden his standards, but it also softens his sensitivity and opens up higher values--provided he lets Nature do its work on him.
Those who pass through life untouched during all those years by any sense of the mystery at its heart are to be pitied.
Any man who has reached the middle or late period of his life has reached an age when the most important activity he can undertake is to try to fulfil as much as possible of the higher purpose of his life on earth. The basis for this activity must necessarily be self-improvement, the building of character and the overcoming of the ego.
In the end, when all this agitation seems to have been for little more than keeping the body alive, the failure to fulfil any higher purpose will bring sadness.
The vivacity of youth may turn in time to the serenity of age, but only for those who have let life teach them and intuition guide them, who have observed their fellows and studied truth's texts and humbled themselves before the Overself. The others gain little more than the years, the infirmities, and the sadnesses.
Instead of wasting time excessively on sad recollection of vanished years, elderly people can use it for comforting meditation on life's highest meanings, and especially on one of the highest of them all: MIND is all there is.
With the years--the world being what it is and human beings what they are--experience often turns this idealism of the young into the disillusionment of the middle-aged or the cynicism of the old. Only a coming into awareness of the higher spiritual nature can balance and correct this condition with the higher truth of the World-Idea, thus renewing hope and giving peace.
There is no finer or more fitting way to spend time during the evening years of life than in turning the mind toward reflection and then stilling it in the Silence.
Alas! for the uncaught intuitions and the undeveloped perceptions--our past is littered with them. How hard to see, how easy to remain blind!
If those whom good fortune has given leisure fritter it away in personal or social trivialities, then the passing years will bring them no nearer the kingdom of heaven but only nearer to regrets at its inaccessibility.
He who is at the beginning of old age should have seen enough of life to know what is most worthwhile. He should hold on to the Intangibles; better still, remember what he really is--such stuff as gods are made of, immortal, timeless, watching the dreamlike show of this world. Let him stay where he belongs--high above the puddles that surround him, the midges that bite him--and be serene.
Deterioration of the body moves in as middle age moves out. This may encourage the kind of pessimistic view which Buddha held in India, the author of Ecclesiastes in Israel, and Schopenhauer in Germany, and turn the mind toward spiritual consolation and spiritual seeking. If it does not, it may even have the very opposite effect.
"If you have peace of mind, contentment, old age is no unbearable burden. Without that, both youth and age are painful," said Greek Sophocles to a much younger questioner.
The fresh vital enthusiasm of youth passes implacably with the years. We are left like drooping petals. This is the sum of our history, as Buddha noted, but the unloveliness can be borne if we find the heavenliness of inner peace.
When we contemplate our remote actions we may regret them, or when we remember old views we may disown them. For it is in the nature of man to change as he gets older.
He learns the lesson of the relativity of all things, especially human things. Time is the great scene-shifter. From careless vivacious youth to fussy stiff old age, the perceptions change, the objects thought about change, as the ageing process creeps in, settles in, bringing new problems.
To the young we old people are complete foreigners. Neither our ways nor our thoughts are theirs. More, they are not interested in us at all, hence make no effort to understand. This is not a criticism for, in return, the old behave towards the young in exactly the same way.
Too well we of the older generation understand youth with its follies and frailties; too seldom does youth understand us.
The need today is for young men with an old outlook and for old men with a young outlook.
The moral errors of the naïve and inexperienced young are understandable, although perhaps not excusable; but those of the middle and older years are unpardonable.
The effect of age on the mind is as various as human beings, but there is a general effect which is common to most persons.
Our elders are worthy of respect, but their counsel is worthy of heeding only if they are old in soul as well as body, only if they have extracted through many lifetimes all the wisdom possible from each one. Experience without reflection misses most of its value, reflection without depth misses much of its value, depth without impartiality may miss the chief point. For all our experience, our life in the body and world, is a device to bring out our soul.
The mere number of years of existence is not enough basis on which to judge a man's wisdom. The body's age is quite separate from the soul's.
If it be true of some persons that wisdom comes with age, it is also true of others that wisdom departs with age. The years may settle a man's mind with great rigidity in early errors, so that he becomes unteachable.
It is said that time brings a man more wisdom. This is often true but it is also sometimes false. If he is unwilling to learn from his own experience, if he is unteachable by observation of others, if he does not see the pitfalls in good fortune and the values in bad fortune, then time will bring him not more wisdom but more foolishness.
Too many men have grown old without growing up.
It is said that old persons like to indulge in personal reminiscence. This would be useful if they did so to learn the lessons enclosed in it, but this is mostly not the case. Their memories of the past are only a clinging to, or bolstering of, their own egos.
If experience makes you bitter or cynical, smug or selfish, then it has served you ill. The passing of years can teach wisdom but only if you receive their message aright.
As past success recedes into memory with the years, as he finds himself moving toward the last farewell, what can support him? All three--past, present, and future--become a passing spectacle. He can rest in none of them. The thought that all are thoughts in the end is saddening and not sustaining.
Every man over a certain age is under sentence of death. Some men below that age are equally threatened. Should not both groups be sobered enough by such a remembrance to ask, "Why am I here?"
The dying autumn leaves induce sad thoughts such as: we are only passengers travelling through this world.
When we older men add up the years gone beyond our reach, and estimate the number of those that may still be left for us, the shock may induce us to put our lives on a newer basis. What better way than to cast out all acidulous dismal negatives, to ally ourselves only with sunny cheering positives?
The older one gets, the quicker time seems to pass by. And for a really elderly person, the few short years which seem ahead become calls to urgency, responsibility, and spirituality.
At the end of many years, after passing through many varied experiences, as we draw close to the terminus of life, we realize that we have not altered our character in fundamentals. We know then that many lifetimes may be needed to change ourselves.
Only the young are capable of a strong passion for truth but only the old are capable of living by it. This is the irony and the tragedy of the Quest.
The time at the disposal of an old man is too short to make himself over again, however repentant he may be, but it is not too short for him to do the one thing just as needful, if not more so. He can hand this problem, just like any other hard problem, over to the higher power, and let the past go. It will then no longer be his anxious concern.
It might be well for us to realize that our present earthly arrangements and possessions are all provisional; they do not possess immortal life. We slip easily into the misapprehension that the things which surrounded us when we were babies must consequently continue to surround us when we are old men and women.
Time takes it all away--the strength from man, the beauty from woman, life from both.
If time has confirmed his early faith, it has rectified his early errors and shown his deficiencies. If it has proved the correctness of some important intuitions dating back to inexperienced years, it has forced him to undergo certain profound changes of view which were received from outside and accepted then.
Alas! that a man begins to get a sense of right values too late to make use of them, that he learns how to live only when he is preparing to make an end of living itself.
Even the harshness of personal bitterness tends to diminish with ripe old age as the man sees and feels how his own life is so diminished.
These facts--the shortness, the transiency, and the instability of human existence--become more and more apparent as youth and the middle years depart, leaving men unconsoled, sadder, and, if they are willing, wiser.
The limitations and finitude of human capacity sadden him, the brevity and transiency of human satisfactions sober him.
The seemingly deplorable tragedy of life is that by the time we really begin to understand what it is all about, materially as well as spiritually, it is time to make our exit.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.