A Plea for the Afternoon


A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.


DR. LYMAN BEECHER said that he twice saved his life by change of climate and circumstances,—once by leaving the East to reside in the West, and again by returning to live in the East. Certainly he prolonged, not only life, but faculties, to a good old age. It is known that towards the close of his life he began a new thesis upon the Trinity, and thought and wrote with intensest zeal till his failing powers of body and mind constrained him to rest. Who shall say that this recurring systole and diastole of thought did not keep his autumn days green and beautiful ?

Utterly ruinous is it for old people to fall into the monotony of quietude, which is without care, and therefore without interest. When I see an aged person thus settling himself, to sleep away the remainder of life, it affects me with something of the horror one feels on seeing an infant fed upon narcotics. There has, perhaps, never been an instance among Christian nations of greatly prolonged powers, except in some person of an active, energetic, and positive character. These qualities seem absolutely necessary to enable men to combat all the allurements to indolence to which elderly folk are subjected in Christian communities. Certain heathen nations formerly exposed their old people in the wilderness, that their wearisome lives might be sooner ended. We beguile ours into idiocy, by withdrawing all social and moral pressure towards further exertion. Mistaken kindness, how much it will yet have to atone for !

“ You have worked hard all your life, father,” says the affectionate son ; “ now you can afford to rest.”

“ Yes, I can afford to rest,” says the mistaken, deluded father ; and he sits down to doze in his easy-chair, take snuff, and court paralysis.

“ Now do give up care to me, mother,” pleads the good daughter. “ You have vexed yourself long enough with these details, and you deserve a few years of comfort and ease.”

So the mother, grieved, and protesting at heart, weakly acquiesces, and consoles herself with her knitting ; or, it that fail her, she gossips, pines, and wishes she had good eyes for reading, till she is in her dotage at sixty, though she ought to have been vigorous in mind and body at eighty.

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.

What right has the mind to fail, while the body is yet comparatively vigorous ? Do we believe in immortality, and that the soul, disembodied, will be again youthful and strong? Then let us nurture this deathless life, that it may never become apathetic or weary, but ever cheerful, strong, and buoyant. Has it lost command of the failing body ? Then we should look for the reason. It must have suffered its faculties to fall into neglect and idleness, while it should have remained vigilant master in its own house.

When the body is worn out, then let the soul depart in peace. We recognize that as fitting and even beautiful. There is a solemn grandeur in it, which is impressive ; but while the body is yet comparatively strong, the mind has no right to lose control of it. If it does, it is an abnormal thing; it is an evil which we should seek to remedy ; it is prima facie evidence of culpable neglect or mismanagement. If I tie my hand to my shoulder, it will soon become weakened and helpless ; if I close my eyes for a week or a month, it will give me pain to open them again to the sunshine ; I can destroy my sight by many methods of misdoing ; I can destroy all my powers either by excesses or by disuse ; but it I use them moderately, yet continuously, I should retain them all while I live. An aged person has no right to be either quite blind or deaf; but there is a vastly greater wrong in his becoming imbecile. He has to thank himself or his ancestors for it, — not the laws of nature. He may have inherited tendencies to infirmity ; but the probability is, that he must attribute it, either to the excesses of early life, or to the indolence of old age.

I am seventy-six,” said John Pierpont, “ but I trust that I yet have left some of the spirit of’76.” So he was ready to enlist as chaplain in the army in defence of our national liberties. “ If, sir,” said the veteran clergyman to the Governor of Massachusetts, — " if this my proffer of service is accepted by your Excellency, I have only one stipulation to make in connection with it, namely, this, — that, on our way to Washington, we are not to go around Baltimore.” The brave old man was a brave good man all his days, — an apostle of temperance and holy living; he reaped the reward of an hundredfold even in this life. This is the way to make age beautiful, and full both of uses and enjoyment.

There are more numerous examples of men who have retained their faculties to a great age than of women. The reason is obvious. Men have more variety, more change, more stimulus in their lives, and they refuse to give up this rightful heritage to any one, even when younger persons are ready to bear all heavy burdens for them, in genuine love and compassion. Knitting grandchildren’s stockings in the chimney-corner is not quite so invigorating to the old dame as her husband’s neighborly gossip in the village store ; and yet, what a burden of catastrophes may be summed up in the common phrase, “ retired from business ” ! Certainly it is not desirable to occupy the whole of life with the mere drudgery of earning one’s living, or of amassing a large fortune. If a family have acquired a competence, they have a right now to engage in higher duties and enjoyments; but to give up activity, to live in idleness, to have no aims or purposes higher than pleasantly passing the time, has been the sudden ruin of many. Sturdy manhood has no right to lay down the burdens of life ; and if it will do this, it must reap its reward. Ennui, querulousness, and premature imbecility are the inseparable black shadows of nothing to do. Give even, to age its occupations and interests.

There is a very old laboring man, deaf, and bent nearly double, who has found a home with a wealthy maiden lady residing in the neighborhood of New York. His daughter is a domestic in the family, and the aged man seems to feel still the great responsibility of earning his living. A large wood-pile is kept always stored near the wayside, ready to be sawed, and the man, who looks nearly a hundred, sits beside it in summer, quietly resting ; or he bends over his saw, slowly moving it to and fro, looking satisfied and contented with his work, and replying often to the passer-by in a cheerful tone, "God bless ye, child ! God bless ye ! ” How much better is this than nothing to do ! That lady, for her thoughtful benevolence, has the benediction of some hearts to which she is a stranger, and which know but little of all the rest of her acts.

Let the old farmer who has lived all his days among green fields, till his hand is tremulous, and hard work is impossible, still keep to his garden. Let him plan it, plant it, or see it planted, and watch the progress of everything from seed to maturity. It will bind him to growth and to cheery young life with an influence scarcely second to the merry presence of his grandchildren. These mischievous beings do him as much good by taxing his ingenuity to keep them out of danger, and in the midst of enjoyment, as by making him love them, and believe in them as a little better and brighter than his own children were. “ I have a pain in your breast,” said Madame de Staël, to her daughter. “ I have a new life springing up in your glad little hearts,” feels many a grandparent.

Age must have purposes and objects of interest and pursuit to the very last, if it would have health or cheerfulness. Persuade the artisan never quite to abandon his craft, or, if he must, assist him to find some kindred industry which shall make a busy leisure for his declining years. If one is too helpless to find pursuits for himself, humanity demands that younger persons should find them for him. His children owe him thus much. How the parent always exerts himself to draw out and quicken the faculties of his small group of toddlers ! Let these, then, in the strength of their maturity, accept the solemn, loving duty of prolonging and occupying the dulling faculties of the parent. We are heathen otherwise. Neither civilization nor Christianity can point to an obligation more sacred than this. Is the feeblest age more helpless or more troublesome than the utter and prolonged weakness of infancy ? If instinct can make humane parents, surely reason and religion should make humane children. But children cannot be practically humane, so long as Christendom generally is mistaken in its duty upon the main point. Its ideal for age is peace, rest; but the ideal for all life should be activity, occupation.

“ She would like to be here to see how nicely I can cook my own dinner, and lay the cloth, and have everything ready as she used to,” said an old man of eighty-four, in speaking of his old wife, who had recently left him. His children fostered the thought, and anxiously guarded his power of self-help to the utmost. How infinitely better this than burdening him with a sense of feebleness ! He knows of their many cares, and is strengthened by the thought of adding but little to their burdens ; so he goes about busy with his own little household needs, pleased with his own little garden patch, and happy all the while in the thought, “ What comfort it must give her, if she knows how well I can take care of myself ! ”

If the early sharer of joys and sorrows has gone to the other world, or if the aged person is in single life, the last years are often indeed objectless and desolate. No loving-kindness can remove the consciousness of being only burdensome to others. It is the keenest pang to the waiting, waning life. But the sentiment is impious. Usefulness is never past till life has passed. The playfulness of a child is as acceptable as the ministering tenderness of an angel.

They tell us that age is often querulous and exacting ; so is sickness, so is infirmity of all kinds ; but age has no right to the plea of the invalid. Let it be hale and robust; and, it its just demands are respected, it will overflow with amiability. The busy child, who likes his play, is a happy one, and the occupied man, who is following pursuits congenial to him, has no time for discontent; but the poor old gentleman who has been nursed into the idea that he is past the age for exertion, that he has little more to do with enjoyments, interests, purposes, or hopes, is of course hypochondriacal. His failings are a natural protest against its unnatural estate.

It is an unphilosophical and a most barbarous idea, that an elderly person must cease to be merry; that he must quietly give up the recreations and enjoyments of the past, and be soberly content with his weight of years. The grim Middle Ages decided that it was a sin for Christian people to laugh. We still insist, that, if an old man laughs, he is not fit for the world to which he is drawing near. Young complains in his “ Night Thoughts ” :

“To gentle life’s descent
“We shut our eyes, and think it is a plain :
We take fair days in winter for the spring " :

as though enjoying life, and looking on the bright side, were a crime which “will turn our blessings into bane.” He tells us:

“ Age should fly concourse, cover in retreat
Defects of judgment, and the will subdue ;
Walk thoughtful on the silent, solemn shore
Of that vast ocean it must sail so soon.”

These are night thoughts indeed. They will draw down the black curtains of dotage about us while we are yet vigorous, rather than add to our fitness for the future life. Shall we sit, like Minerva’s owls, hooting dolefully through the long evening in pretence of a wisdom to which we have not attained ? Levity is a sin in young or old ; but happiness is an exalted Christian privilege, and recreation an imperative Christian duty, especially when one detects himself failing in the vigor and tone of any of his best powers. Age has the highest right to live in perpetual enjoyment.

We make festivals and birthday parties for our children, that they may be benefited by cheerful associations. This is pleasant and well, though it is only a rather superfluous free-will tithing of the mint and anise. Youth can be happy under almost any circumstances. Let us rather multiply festivities, pageants, reunions, and goodfellowship generally, for the benefit of age, — May-days amid the flowers in spring, picnics in cool arbors for summer, leaf-gatherings in brilliant autumn, and Christmas merriment in midwinter, — all carefully arranged for the high-* est enjoyment of the dear old friend or relative who has remembered others hitherto. Let us all engage together in the merriest games. Guesses, forfeits, hunt-the-slipper, and blind-man’s-buff will bring laughter into all our hearts; especially if the very decorous people indulge under the benevolent pretext of “amusing the children.”

Concerts and operas to aged musiclovers, especially if echoing the beloved old music, would fall like the sound of spring rain upon withered hearts. Give the amateur, with his fading sight, the best possible glasses, suited to his needs, and the best light in the art gallery ; let youth stand aside and be patient, if need be, while he monopolizes the best picture. A whole hour spent by some half-blind old grandmother in looking at one painting will make her heart younger for all her remaining years. We shall be old some day, and then will come our turn for these noblest courtesies of life. If anybody should go to the theatre, it is the superannuated, — not every night or every week, doubtless, but half a dozen times a year, more or less, as circumstances incline. All work and no play is not worse for seven than it is for seventy.

Social stimulus is always a great quickener; but if nature desires to recreate itself in genuine freedom, it must be in the society of, its equals. It you could bring a dozen very old people together to play and be merry, and could make them all cordially believe in this as eight and roper, as eminently to be desired, and as the only wholesome tonic for dignified and respectable men and women of threescore and ten, you would inaugurate a new era. Christmas plays, with all the young folks present, can never have a tithe of the relish which these old people’s carnivals, freely dedicated to health and merriment, might easily command. A whittling club for the clear old Yankee octogenarians would be no bad idea.

They could hardly play at cricket or base-ball ; but it would do my soul good to see an old people’s gymnasium established, — nobody admitted under seventy-five. I can see how quickened pride would straighten crooked backs, how good-fellowship would lubricate dry joints, and how jovial laughter would fatten thin ribs. Generous emulation would make the old people swing on their parallel bars, climb dizzying ladders, dance Virginia reels, and almost stand on their heads and turn somersets, as they used to seventy years ago. In these days when “ muscle is looking up,” the gymnast should certainly turn his attention to the aches and rheumatisms of the suffering grandparents. He can do them more good than all the doctors, if he will but prescribe wisely and in moderation. His cures would be little short of miraculous ; but before some dear old conservatives of our acquaintance follow his advice, I suppose we shall all be in the millennium. Exercise is all very well for growing boys and sturdy men ; but it is absolutely indispensable to the health and happiness of all old people and invalids. Graduate it with the nicest skill and discretion; but, in the name of humanity, do insist that every old person shall keep the free use of his muscles, and be able to war successfully against gout and palsy.

“ Don’t know about it! I am getting to be very stiff already,” says a stout gentleman of fifty.

To be sure you are, my dear sir; but if you will wear soft flannel next your heart, and fall in love anew with vigorous measures, I warrant you a renewed youth, to return with all the suppleness of five-and-twenty. Exercise will exorcise stiffness, and leave you a serviceable backbone still, morally and physically. You are ageing already; but many a circus-rider at your years, despite his reckless dissipation, can rival M. Blondin in agility ; and many an Indian brave, ten vears your senior, can run ten miles without resting. No wonder! he has been practising for threescore years. Western hunters and English squires enjov the chase at seventy. Lord Brougham at eighty-three delighted in a horseback ride of a dozen miles before breakfast. His mind, too, which of course sympathized, was as young as his body ; he was as active in the great British Ship of State as the youngest man of them all.

If we lay down our weapons we shall forget how to use them. Run, my dear sir, — run, jump, ride, skate, and be active. If you will keep yourself in practice, you can do the same thing at seventy. The young gymnast is gaining new power daily ; the aged one should cling to what he already has, as pertinaciously as he clings to life. Exercise is as indispensable to him as food, if he would retain his vigor and elasticity but little impaired. They will gradually forsake him, beyond question, slipping away with the slow sands of life; but let them depart together. This is no calamity ; the hour-glass is only turned afresh in the other world. It is the living death of mere oblivion, “ sans everything,” which is fearful.

“ He is gradually failing,” is the standard comment upon advancing years. This, being interpreted, means, “ He is gradually becoming paralytic and imbecile, in body and mind ” ; and it is accepted as an inevitable requirement ot nature. If one thought so, he might well pray to die young; it would go far towards establishing suicide as a humane institution. When the Eastern traveller rode his camel past the rock where he had left his aged father to die, he reasoned with himself, " They will bring me here, too, some day, to die like him!” The thought was not a pleasant one, certainly; but why was it any worse than the equanimity with which we look upon an aged parent in his dotage, and reflect, “ We shall be like him one day”? Both destinies are unlovely; and therefore unnatural.

Very little is usually accomplished, or even expected, especially in any new direction, after the period of middle life. Point to Von Humboldt, who retained, apparently, the full use and command of all his faculties at ninety years; to Washington Irving, who wrote vigorously and well to the very last of his long life, as though his mental powers were still in their prime ; and to men of less note, who are younger at eighty than most people are at sixty,emdash;and you are told that these exceptions only prove the rule. Is it not more probable that the exceptions indicate, almost demonstrate, the possibilities of all the others? Rev. Mr. Waldo, who was formerly chaplain in Congress, and who was a clergyman of ability at past ninety, was convinced that no one had a right to die till he had rounded the full century. He often walked three miles from his country residence into Syracuse, where he occasionally preached on Sunday, and after service again walked quietly back at his leisure. I have known half a dozen obscure women, all of foreign origin, — Scotch, English, or German, — who could walk several miles with great ease when past eighty. Grant Thorburn gave us his rules of living, and was quite persuaded that his good habits were the simple cause of his prolonged young old age. So I believe also. All these have been active, resolute, and sensible people from infancy up. The newspapers; often give us extraordinary instances of longevity, and they are always combined with activity. Hufeland lays it down as one of his maxims concerning longevity, that there is no instance of any idlers attaining it. Most persons are either too ignorant or too “ constitutionally tired ” to be healthy. Even their youth is one protracted quarrel with aches and ailments. This, drawn out to very old age, would be intolerable ; so pitying Nature relieves them from that curse, and bids them try again. Doubtless there are inherited tendencies and infirmities, which may never be counteracted ; much must be allowed, too, for strength and durability of original constitution ; but it will be found, also, that the “long-lived families,” are invariably energetic and active, both in temperament and habits. Not one idler has been known to live a hundred years since the world began ; Nature keeps him for a while, but she will not suffer him so long to cumber the ground. The record of Methuselah is a very brief one ; but I doubt not that he was a most resolute, energetic, and very desirable personage in his day. No other character than such a one could have endured to live nine hundred and sixty-nine years.

I recollect returning from school one evening when a child, and finding myself, as I entered the “ door-yard ” at home, in the midst of a group of visitors, who were taking leave of the family. A very old lady, in a neat black “ scoop-shovel ” bonnet, was leaning on the arm of her daughter, who was also an aged woman. Several others were standing about, — my own dear old grandmother among the rest,—and all of them seemed to me old enough to be the daughters of Methuselah.

I stood peering at them curiously, sun-bonnet in hand, when the very old lady came slowly towards me.

“ How old are you, little girl ?” she asked.

“ Six years old.”

“ Are you ? I was six years old a hundred years ago.”

How I started and looked up wonderingly under the deep black bonnet. She smiled as she added, “ My dear child, I am a hundred years older than you are ” ; and as she kissed my forehead, and laid her thin hand tenderly on my bare head, I felt even then that it was a benediction.

How honored we all felt by her presence ! No one else was spoken of for a week ; and we children all felt that it would be very pleasant to live a hundred years longer, and to be still goodnatured, and have everybody very proud of us. Let me live to an old age, but let me not outlive the free use of all my faculties, should be the prayer and aspiration of every child. Let us point him to that goal, and bid him seek to win the race. Heaven often forces us to answer our own prayers ; and we must undoubtedly do so in this case, or they will remain unanswered. We ought to live for old age just in the spirit in which we are constantly exhorted to live for heaven, that is, to think of it, take measures to attain it, and make provision for it. I do not mean merely the laying up of “ much goods” for the “many years.” An honest old age has a right to be independent, and to be no more cumbered with “much serving.” It often needs change. Let the old man be free to leave his home occasionally, and with his old wife, hand in hand, let him go travelling to see the world and enjoy it. They may thus add years to their length of days, much to their stock of happiness, and more still to the vigor and restoration of decaying faculties. After threescore years and ten of robust work, either with brains or hands, society owes the veteran a competence, and every rational enjoyment which it will procure ; and it is all wrong if he has not been able to obtain this.

But the highest provision for age must be in the man, not for him. He should have laid up qualities within himself which will make his last years dignified with intelligence, fruitful in resources for enjoyment, and serene from the absence of pain and overwhelming infirmities. No one would deny him the luxury of giving his blessing to the weeper, and of extending an open hand to every want; but it is time now that he should be called mainly to rejoice with those who are rejoicing. When there are tears falling in the sad world, let him turn and look at the rainbow which is in the east. We should all appreciate the fitness of this, and spare him, as far as may be, from further grief. Let his welfare be kept henceforth as in the hollow of his children’s hands. We rarely think of bringing sorrow or troubles to the heart of childhood ; it is too pitiful to dim its loving eyes with premature suffering. Just so should we ward off every grief from one who has borne his share already. Let bright faces come to him, beaming with smiles. Let gay voices echo about him, and quicken his dull ear with melody ! Let glad hearts surround him, and vibrate all the sweet and hopeful chords of his nature ! He will soon be young again in the new world, and as eager as they are in the pursuit of the unknown. He has ample powers yet to appreciate all their enthusiasm. It will awaken memories of long-forgotten years, of brilliant achievements and irrepressible hopes. Listen, then, when he recalls the past, and give him all honor for the deeds done. You may thus unite past, present, and future in one accord of love and good-will.

If age were thus enthroned with dignity, and guarded with an ever-conscicntious and active loving-tenderness, it would be no longer dreaded, but it would shine before us all as a pleasant heritage for the future. When one has lived a brave life, well spent in the service of others, he has a right to reflect with satisfaction upon the time when he shall be ministered unto, with filial pleasure and respect, by the younger generation. Is the mother’s unremitting care for her babe—wearing and never-ceasing though it be — regarded as a heavy burden ? It is always full of precious recompense ! Let Christianity develop those warm and holy filial sentiments which will make a reciprocal duty equally dear, sacred, and self-satisfying. In youth we are too eager for the future for which we are preparing to live cordially in the present; middle life imposes too many duties, claims, and necessities to make it quite subservient for our own purposes ; but age, having laid down its burden of activities, and checked by nature’s own barriers from too intently absorbing itself in its anticipations of coming life, should be enjoyed as one long and needed holiday. Let the whole career of man be soothed and moulded into a harmony which is befitting immortals.

The brunt of the battle is over ; the stern conflicts of life are safely passed ; there is no more need to be weighed down by grievous cares, or oppressed with obligations and responsibilities; and yet, it is not an afternoon merely for sleep, but for more positive enjoyment. Happiness is its own end ; in itself it is always a good ; and when it falls upon a withered heart, it is an evening dewsent from Heaven to water and revive it for the future life. His more exhausting cares the worn veteran, may gradually transfer to more stalwart shoulders, since Providence indicates that it can wait his services in that direction till he has laid off the old body altogether, and stepped into the sunshine, with his newly embodied immortality. Meantime let there be no blank in his existence; to the good man there is earth and heaven ; we have given up purgatory. When he has drawn very near to the new shore, there should be all the purple and golden glory of a beautiful sunset. Make pleasant to him life’s holiday and holy day.