On Keeping Young

THE article in the March Atlantic by my dear friend and neighbor, Professor Palmer, ‘On Growing Old,’ is most reassuring to one who is treading close on the heels of this sage of eighty-eight years. The veteran philosopher has lost nothing of his light touch, his intimate manner, the Palmeresque disguise of wise counsels in simple garb, which have made his lecture room for forty years a shrine to successive generations of devoted students. It must be admitted, however, that he has written not so much of old age itself as of ways to postpone or counteract the debility of old age. His counsels are prophylactic in their intention. He is, in fact, writing, not of growing old, but of keeping young. The charm and gayety of his mood are not those of submissive senescence, but those of unconquerable vitality, greeting the end of life with the smile of a victor in a strenuous game.

Nor does Professor Palmer, with all his candor of expression, permit himself to write of the fundamental resources which have made his old age serene and beneficent. He tells of his food and drink, his underclothing and exercise, and offers many suggestions for hygienic and disciplined living; but his friends well know, and those who revere him from a distance should be assured, that he is sustained by deeper resources of the spirit, which make his old age an Indian summer of serene content. Except for a brief allusion to controlling ‘moods’ and a closing suggestion that religion has comforted him, there is no intimation of his achievements and memories. Where are the cheering reminiscences of a revered teacher? Where is the evidence of that genius for friendship which has gathered round Professor Palmer a devoted group of disciples? I have just been reading aloud with renewed delight the whole twenty-four books of Palmer’s Odyssey, and as I have recited the rhythmic and balanced lines, more poetic than many versified translations, and the product, Professor Palmer reports, of no less than eleven revisions, I have found myself thinking quite as much of the intellectual joy which has been found in such unprecedented interpretation as of the winsome and vivid folklore itself.

Indeed, it may be not unreasonably objected by Sybaritic readers of Professor Palmer’s report of physical limitations that growing old on such terms can hardly be regarded as worth the effort it costs. Long life without one night of sound sleep, or one day cheered by ‘wine, beer, tobacco, coffee, or tea,’ might seem, even to moderately temperate people, to achieve length of days without depth and years without joy. Most men would probably prefer to live fewer years among the activities and enjoyments of Periclean Athens than in the hardihood and colorlessness of Sparta. ’Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay!’ In a word, one is tempted to wish that Professor Palmer, having reported the severe regimen which has permitted him to grow old, had felt called upon to add an even more intimate confession on the art of keeping young.

While we are waiting, however, for this second Book of his De Senectute, it may be permitted to a neighbor and friend to anticipate some of the suggestions which he might be likely to make. What is it that keeps one young when he is growing old? On what resources may he rely to prevent senescence from becoming senility? It might be assumed that the first condition of keeping young would be the maintenance of physical health, and it is certainly difficult to feel youthful when one is burdened with invalidism or racked with pain. Yet no one can recall the lives among his acquaintances which in advancing age have seemed most possessed by resilient vitality without discovering that some of them — and perhaps the most indomitably cheerful and cheer-giving — have been frail in health and perhaps permanently invalided or helpless. It is one of the strangest paradoxes of human experience that lives which might seem frustrated or crushed often possess a radiance of character which illuminates the conduct and even the faces of our friends, and makes them ministers of tranquillity and hope. I am thinking of one woman who could give points to Professor Palmer as a lifelong invalid. She has never had a day of robust health, or any normal opportunity for active usefulness, yet she has been to her community, and especially to young people, the wisest of counselors and the most inspiring of friends. Character has conquered conditions. Freedom from interest in herself has made her interesting to others. No one is younger or braver or more discerning than she, and men and women concerned with the active administration of philanthropy and social justice turn to her for guidance and courage. While growing old she has kept young, and as the flesh has grown weak the spirit has been rejuvenescent.

With this limited confidence in keeping young by merely feeling fit, one may consider other and more effective ways of postponing surrender to the decrepitude of age. Of these the first I should name is the cultivation and maintenance of friendships. ‘A man, sir,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘should keep his friendships in constant repair.’ A busy man or woman in the full swing of professional or business or domestic cares or social obligations is likely to fancy that these affairs must come first and that friendships may wait; but when one reaches old age he may find that in gaining the world he has lost his friends, and — to paraphrase Scripture — what shall a man give in exchange for his friends? The most inevitable condition of old age is solitude, and the most immediate remedy for solitude is found in old companionships maintained or in new ones discovered. Friendship cannot be improvised or delayed until leisure arrives. It must be cultivated with care, and even with the sacrifice of what seem more pressing obligations. It must be kept in repair, or it will become irreparable.

If old age must necessarily involve the loss of old friends, one way to keep young is to make friends of the young. This does not mean that an old man should pretend to be young, or try to keep pace with young people. Nothing is more repulsive than an old man with the habits or language or vices of a young man. But, on the other hand, there is often a reciprocal happiness found when old men appreciate the activities of youth and young men respect the experience of age. Young people at the present time are likely to seem to old people lacking in reverence, amusingly defiant of tradition, and as undisguised in frankness as the nudity of the bathing beach. The old man who would keep young must be sure that human nature remains much the same from generation to generation; that each new generation faces a new world and must be trusted to re-create it; that one who is building a modern skyscraper must be permitted to wreck what have seemed substantial structures; and that Greek girls could be modest though their legs were bare. To appreciate the new world in its making is one of the greatest privileges of age. It is not necessary to be a Socrates in order to command the loyalty of the young. Sympathetic confidence in the underlying motives of the young may both win their devotion and keep oneself young.

It must be admitted, however, that old age cannot find its chief resource in companionship. Friends of one’s own age are withdrawn into the mystery of death, and life becomes shut away from new friends by limitations of strength and energy. Growing old is in the main an experience of solitude. How shall one keep young when he is thus alone? What is to prevent or postpone the approach of decrepitude and the natural desire for release?

One of the resources which keep a lonely old age from spiritual decline is the companionship of books. Increasing leisure and physical limitations may easily tempt one to relax intellectual interest, and to be satisfied with two newspapers a day and the frivolous literature of current events. That is a sign that one is growing old, and not keeping young. Intellectual resiliency depends upon keeping the spiritual muscles taut by exercise, and this must be accomplished by stiff and substantial reading on subjects of generous intention and spiritual interest. An old man should be the last to surrender to the cheap literature which may satisfy the leisure hours of hard-working people. Since he lacks the companionship of his fellows, the hope of keeping his own mind young is in his keeping step with the march of the new time and rescuing himself from the tempting and demoralizing attitude of a laudator temporis acti.

Of all such contacts with reality, the best is the mastery of a new subject or of a congenial subject hitherto casually pursued — the history of an art, the details of a history, the understanding of a technical discovery, the progress of a science, the new poetry, the new aspects of religion. To know one’s subject well, or at least to know it better than most people, is not only to justify self-respect, but it is also to grow younger in spirit as one grows older in years.

A similar resource is offered to those who have felt in themselves a vague inclination for self-expression, in literature or poetry or art, but have been overmastered by the demands of business or the cares of home. Old age is not only a good time to read poetry, but a time for furtive attempts at writing the verses which have been so long suppressed in one’s heart; a good time, not to paint good pictures, but to give at least the little latent talent of which one has been dimly conscious a chance for modest and closely guarded expression. One may even find enjoyment in writing a Piece like this, even though he cannot anticipate that any judicious editor will think it worth publishing. Few uses of leisure hours are more entertaining than this surreptitious enjoyment in production, or in cultivating beauty in phrase or color or form. Vain as such experiments would have been when finished workmanship was demanded, they may contribute much in the solitude of age to keep one young.

These suggestions lead one to a further device for keeping young, which is offered by the collector’s passion. It is not only possible to cheer one’s solitude by the companionship of literature and art, but this self-discipline may be greatly stimulated by the peculiar joy of the collector. It makes no great difference what the material collected may be. A rich man may select for his sphere of extravagance a group of English portraits or of French landscapes or of illuminated manuscripts or of Chinese jade; but a poor man may find equally absorbing interests in chasing the first editions of a modern author, or in applying his expert knowledge to acquiring at slight cost a precious chair or bowl or battered book. Here is a new field of exploration and romance for the aged. Catalogues of old books become more entrancing than the latest novel. The exhilaration of such a chase is almost athletic in its excitement. A new range of acquaintances opens with other sportsmen of similar tastes. The new hunting field may be the fireside and the easy-chair, but there may be companionship and competition with new friends in distant lands. The collector’s passion outlives all hunting with horse and hounds, and offers to solitary old age a new way to keep oneself young.

Professor Palmer is a distinguished witness of this perennial youth in a collector. Beginning as a young teacher with limited means, he has become one of the great book collectors of his generation, and has finally crowned his discriminating and untiring expenditure by presenting, first, his precious series of the Philosophers to the Harvard Library, and later his magnificent collection of the Poets to Wellesley College, reserving in this latter case only the privilege of adding more volumes to his gift as a further self-indulgence. It is no wonder that old age on such terms is one of autumnal harvest.

A further resource of age, which may be called the obverse of the habit of collecting, is to be found by prosperous people in the habit of distributing. Money-getting is so absorbing a pursuit that many men who succeed in it find that they have nothing to do with what they get, and, instead of owning their wealth, are owned by it. Their wealth becomes, as Ruskin said, their ‘illth, ’ for it is not well but ill with them. They grow old with riches, but without enrichment. Here enters the happiness of long-continued concern with large causes of philanthropy or political reform or social welfare which have detached one from the study of the market and enriched one with thoughts of self-effacing service. And here, as one grows old and prosperous, there is made the further discovery that the judicious distribution of superfluous wealth may help to keep one young. It is one of the strangest ironies of human experience that the man who has collected wealth should so often miss the exhilaration of distributing it, and transfers to his heirs a resource of happiness and self-respect which should have been enjoyed by himself. To bequeath wealth to worthy causes has its merits, though it is no conclusive evidence of generosity to give away what one can no longer keep; but to grow old with means which might be distributed without injustice to heirs, and to miss the happiness of giving, is to find in old age mere decadence where one might find unanticipated joy.

Fortunately for this country and for the world, this momentous discovery of the uses of wealth has been made by Americans on a scale and with a discriminating wisdom unprecedented in human history. Other nations have spent large sums for the welfare of needy citizens through taxation of the wealthy, but the dimensions and expenditure of voluntary philanthropy, distributed in this country during the lifetime of the benefactors, presents a unique evidence of sagacity and foresight, as well as of commercial and industrial success. Here is an abundant opportunity for rich old men to recover the initiative and venturesomeness of their younger and moneymaking years. The distinguished philanthropist George Peabody was, according to common report, a somewhat penurious and exacting banker, but when, under certain influences, it was brought to his mind that he could not long possess his money, and that it was valueless unless used, he launched out into a series of munificent benefactions which gave him much more happiness than all his money-making, and which have made his name permanently illustrious. The same discovery, that the distribution of money is more interesting and more challenging to wisdom than the making of money, gives to old age among the rich a new chance of keeping young. It is not only that great causes need to be reenforced, but not less that spiritual fertility and intellectual invigoration may accrue to the fortunate givers, who have literally verified the maxim that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Through these reflections, and others which might be added concerning the resources of old age, one is led, as if by an ascending and winding path, from companionship and friendship up to books and creative tastes, and again to the collecting of treasures and the distribution of them, until at last one reaches the high region of experience where rational religion reveals itself as the guide of life. Here again one falls in with Professor Palmer in his final paragraph. In commending religion as a resource of old age he does not, of course, mean that its chief function is to prolong life, as one employs a stick or crutch to steady one’s tottering steps.

He is writing, no doubt, though with a brevity which has misled at least one critic, of his own experience of serenity and confidence, derived from lifelong and constant conviction of a friendly and beneficent Universe.

It must be admitted that this is not the influence exerted by some types of religion on advancing age. If religious faith has been accepted as a passive submission, leaving to some higher Power the vicarious task of establishing justice and promoting progress; if one has been bred, under a teaching of human helplessness, to cast himself as a worthless offering before the Mercy Seat — then the influence of religion on old age may be rather one of preparation for death than of renewal of life. Much instruction in piety has been a warning to old age rather than a reassurance. The incident of dying has been so magnified in its importance that growing old may seem little more than a slow descent into the Valley of Shadow, which one may reasonably desire to accelerate rather than to restrain.

But if religious faith be the courage of a child of God, a brave venture of the spirit reenforced by a beneficent Universe, then it has in it a perennial healthfulness and vigor which give to one who is growing old in body a renaissance of heart and will. The maxim of inhibitive and prudential religion is ‘Prepare to die!’ The maxim of venturesome and rational religion is ‘Prepare to live!’ The one type of religion faces in old age an open grave; the other faces an open door. Religious faith is not a conclusion of the reason, but a dedication of the will. It promotes glad expectancy for the soul and for the world. In Dante’s phrase, it ‘eternalizes’ life. It is the final resource which gives to old age that serenity and cheerfulness which keep the human spirit young.