At Forty-Five

YESTERDAY was my forty-fifth birthday. ‘What! Only forty-five?’ I thought. It seemed to me that I must be twice that age. Not that I have a feeling of great decrepitude, but, rather, a sense of having passed through a period of time that could only be measured in terms of lightyears. No doubt it is a feeling common to men of my generation, and even more so to those of our fathers who are still living. Our lives cover changes so enormous that it seems incredible that we could have witnessed them.

Upon going to bed I lay awake for a long time, taking stock of myself, making an inventory of gains and losses, trying to decide whether, on the whole, I had reason to proceed on my way grieving or rejoicing. Casting up a balance, it seemed so definitely not on the red side of the ledger that I became suspicious of my reckoning. ‘There must be something wrong with my arithmetic,’ I thought; so I summoned my familiar demon, who will sometimes consent to be called into conference in the small hours of the morning. He perched on the footboard of the bed, his chin in his hands, his elbows on his knees, waiting for me to speak.

‘It seems indecent,’ I began, ‘for a man of forty-five to be as content with life as I am. I feel that I ought to be thoroughly dissatisfied with it. As a matter of fact, I am reasonably satisfied to be who I am, and what I am, and where I am; and, granted that I must always be the same person, if I were to have an opportunity to relive these forty-five years, although I would, of course, make a considerable number of changes, they would not be of such a character as to affect, greatly, the current of my life stream. What I should like to know is this: Is my content justified, or have I reached this advanced age without gaining any clear conception of what living, in my case, might have been?’

‘That seems to me a very foolish question,’ he replied. ‘What does it matter whether your content is justified or not? If you have it, that should be enough.’

‘But I have no desire to live in a fool’s paradise,’ I went on. ‘Show me the man I might have been if, at every crossroad I have passed thus far, I had taken the right turning.’

He gazed at me in silence for a moment; then he said, ‘I don’t in the least understand what you mean.’

‘I don’t see how I can put it more clearly,’ I replied. ‘I wish to be shown the man I might have been if I had never made a wrong decision of importance; if I had made the most of every opportunity that has come to me; if, in short —’

‘If, in short, you had been Omnipotence Itself?’ he interrupted. ‘I am not of a high order of spirits, but I doubt whether Omnipotence could tell you that. Why do you suppose that such a thing as a wholly right decision could be made?’

‘There must be, in the realm of the abstract, a pure standard for judging such matters,’ I said.

‘And what has the realm of the abstract to do with you or me?’ he asked. ‘One thing is clear from these questions: for all your forty-five years you have by no means achieved the mellow wisdom suitable to a man of your age. One piece of advice I will give you: never be suspicious of happiness, nor question its validity. If you have it — good! What sort of familiar demon should I be if I were to tell you what seems to me to be the truth? Good night and good luck to you. I hope that your liver is in as excellent order this time next year’—and with that he vanished. A little reflection convinced me that I had been very properly rebuked.

I was still far from sleepy. ‘Have I, then, only my liver to thank,’I mused, ‘and the fact that my other digestive organs have functioned, thus far, without complaint?’ I hate the analytical chemist’s point of view: that all our joys and sorrows have a purely physical basis. I like to believe that spiritual well-being is something extra-chemical; but, after all, what does it matter? It is the condition that is important, and not the cause of the condition; so I put these futile questionings aside.

I found the phrase, ‘the Good Life,’ rising into consciousness, and, after regarding it from various angles, I discovered that it has come to have a different meaning for me during these latter years. Formerly I conceived of it as a perpetual conflict. Self-discipline, I then believed, required that one should seek out rapids and whirlpools rather than attempt to avoid them. I believed that one should spend one’s time in bashing against rocks, rolling, bumping, and scraping over the sand bars and gravel beds of misfortune. I have lost my fondness for this sort of discipline and my belief in its necessarily wholesome effect.

I remember with what enthusiasm, as a youth, I responded to those lines of Henley’s: —

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Wider experience and observation have convinced me that a healthy soul, and a well-seasoned one, need not writhe perpetually in this fell clutch. Unbowed heads need not always be bloody ones. Is love of ease of spirit an evidence of dry rot, or advancing age, or both? I should like an answer to this question, but no one under forty need reply. I think I will reply to it myself, although to do so lays me open to the charge of self-flattery: It is an evidence of increasing common sense. Ease of spirit does not mean numbness or deadness of spirit; at least, it need not mean this.

One thing I have irrecoverably lost, somewhere between my thirtieth and this present year, and that is socialand political-mindedness. Sometimes this seems to me a misfortune; at other times not. Undoubtedly there is need for people concerned with matters of the health or sickness of the planet at large; but there is also a need, I think, for those with home-keeping minds, whose interests are confined to the communities where they live.

Atlas has many aids; my strength is small;
And when I offered it, ‘ My child,’ he said,
‘ I have more helpers than I want or need.
This task was mine since time began. If all
Stand here with me, and sweat, and groan and bleed,
Who shall see the glory overhead ? ’

At least this is the reply I should make, were I in the place of Atlas, to the host of amateurs who would carry his burden for him. Men who spend their Saturday afternoons spading in their gardens or flying kites with their children, and their evenings reading Chaucer, or Milton, or Montaigne’s Essays, are as useful citizens, in my opinion, as those who worry themselves sick over matters beyond their control. Whatever happens in Germany, or India or Manchuria, someone must continue to read and delight in the poets; and, whether or no Russia succeeds in her second five-year plan, I hope that, even in Russia, there will still be kite fliers on grassy hilltops.

For my own part, I am just beginning to discover, in something more than an intellectual sense, what Thoreau meant when he said that he wondered he ever got so far as five miles from Concord.