Do Old People Have Duties Or Are They Beyond All That?
Montpelier, Vermont - November 2, 2000
I have always been a timid speaker. But lately I’ve begun to think I should turn over a new leaf. The reason for the change will, I hope, become apparent from the theme of these remarks.
We live most of our lives under the impression that comes to us in childhood that we are surrounded by big people--people who know more than we do, who are more powerful than we are, who have explored life more thoroughly than we have. And though, at times, we chafe under their tutelage, we still do feel, somewhere inside our being, that they really do understand better than we how things work, and that, consequently, we had best subordinate our judgment to theirs.
This is a comforting feeling. Somebody’s in charge. Somebody will look after things. Somebody will do what’s necessary. Even so there comes a time in life when, if we have been reasonably observant, we need to step out from that comfort and face the bleak truth. There are no big, supernally wise people. Nobody is in charge. Nobody understands the world. If human affairs are to proceed equitably they will have to do so under the guidance of people much like ourselves.
God help us!
If experience teaches nothing else, it has to teach that building a decent, just, supportive and richly rewarding social order is extremely difficult. The barriers in the way are more numerous than anybody can list and more tangled than anybody can sort out. If we’re to make any progress at all, it will take the very best of our hearts and minds. Yet, we live mostly with images of old age that refuse to acknowledge that truth.
Supposing ten people were trying to push a heavy truck up a steep hill. And suppose that all of a sudden three of them said, “Oh well! I’ve been pushing long enough. I’m not going to push anymore. I think I’ll just get in the truck and ride.”
That’s nuts. Leaving aside for the moment the question of where’s the best place to push at different stages of life, surely we can agree that the idea that some people should stop pushing altogether is insane. It’s a formula for social disaster. And yet, if you watch the glittering commercials put out by insurance companies showing sixty year-old people doing nothing but playing golf or lolling on the beach, you get the sense that this is indeed the conventional wisdom of our time.
We are to an extent most of us are loath to admit captives to the metaphors we choose. And for some reason--probably because Satan told us to do it--we have chosen the bell curve for the
metaphor of life. Life starts out in innocence and weakness. It climbs steadily to a peak of power and understanding, and, then, it begins just as steadily to decline back towards feebleness and unawareness of what is going on. And why do we do this? Because it is the metaphor that nature puts in front of us for dogs and pigs and goats. But is human life really perfectly analogous to goat life? I refer you to a film that is now almost half a century old, The African Queen, in which a character played by Katherine Hepburn says to a character played by Humphrey Bogart: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what God put us on this earth to rise above.”
I would like to suggest for the purposes of this talk a different metaphor: an upward path towards the light which reaches its highest elevation just at the moment of death. And, if nature sometimes gets in the way and defeats this metaphor, we can at least tell nature to bug off, and work towards an ideal that is more in keeping with our best selves than nature can construe.
It’s with that metaphor of an ever-ascending path in the background that I want to suggest to you tonight four duties that are particularly the responsibility of people in the later years of their lives. I’m not saying that these are the only four, nor am I saying that they should be ignored by people of more sprightly years . But I am saying that if we could persuade a majority of the people who are past their mid-fifties to take up these four duties alone, we would pretty rapidly experience a happy social transformation.
The first is mere common sense, but one of the things we learn with increasing years is that common sense is not all that common. Everyone knows that one of the principal features of the Hippocratic oath, which physicians take upon entering the practice of medicine is the pledge to do no harm. We need a comparable promise from older people: a resolution to be no greater burden than we have to be. Nature for some reason nobody can figure out seems to ally degeneration with aging. To the degree we remain in thrall to nature we can’t do anything about that. But in this society we seem severely confused about the difference between what is due to nature and what is due to stupidity. We have got it in our minds that age brings far greater debility than it does in fact produce, and because we expect it we become the creators of it. If you believe that by the time you reach sixty-five, or seventy, or seventy-five that you’ll be feeble, and if everyone around you believes the same thing, then, guess what? You will be feeble.
A week and a half ago, my older daughter Elizabeth, who is twenty-five, ran in her first marathon. She said it was much harder than she had expected it to be, but she finished, and she ran the race in less time than she had targeted. She wanted to make it in four and a half hours, and she finished in four hours and twenty-four minutes, which placed her well in the upper half of the finishers. Her mother and I were very proud of her because it was it was difficult and it took great determination. But in that same race--the Chicago Marathon--ninety-two people who were sixty-five years old or older also finished. And twenty of them ran faster than Elizabeth did. Jim Smedema of Windsor Heights, Iowa, who is sixty-eight years old, completed the course in three hours and seventeen minutes, which is a good time for anybody outside the top competitors.
I’m not up here telling old people to go out and run marathons. In fact, I think that’s a little fanatic. But the fact that older people can do it tells us something about the capabilities of the aging body. It is far more resourceful and far tougher than we generally give it credit for. You might say that Jim Smedema is just lucky. I don’t know him, but I do know this: it wasn’t luck that allowed him to push his sixty-eight year old body over twenty-six miles in only three hours and seventeen minutes. He was able to do it because before the race he took the actions that allowed him to do it. He did what everyone of us should do. He had a goal and he did what was necessary to reach it.
Most of us aren’t going to choose goals as demanding as running a marathon. But we should be expecting more of our physical selves than we generally do. At the very least, we should be determined to maintain sufficient strength and vigor to carry out the tasks of everyday life. We ought to be able to walk down to the store to buy a loaf of bread. We ought to be able to pick up a box and set it on a shelf. We ought to be able to climb four or five flights of stairs. The point is that as we age even those simple abilities will go away unless we have a program for maintaining them. You can’t walk to the store if for the past twenty-five years you have walked no farther than fifty feet from the house to the car.
We don’t know what percentage of the health care costs for the elderly come about because of inactivity and absent-mindedness. But I would wager that it’s much greater than anybody imagines. We do know this: the health-care expenditures for those over sixty-five are staggering. Forty-four percent of all hospital days are accounted for by that age group. A third of all the money spent on medical care goes to them. In 1996, the average annual expenditure for those in the group sixty-five to sixty-nine was $5,864, and for those from seventy-five to seventy-nine it was $9, 414. If a half or a third of that money could be saved by reasonable exercise and sensible diet the boon to the nation would be tremendous. And I have little doubt that it could be. One of my former students was married to a proctologist, an expert who delves into those regions of the body we don’t often like to talk about. He told me once that more than half the ailments he treated would disappear completely if his patients would simply drink four full glasses of water everyday.
What can be said about maintaining the vigor of body needs to be said with triple intensity about maintaining vigor of mind, especially in America, where over the past fifty years we have become an exceedingly lazy-minded people. In this respect our famed pragmatism has served us ill, because it has translated in popular thought to the proposition that the only reason to exercise the mind is for addressing some immediately practical problem. We see the results of this in the hordes of men in their sixties who are approaching what we call “retirement” and are terrified by the prospect. “I have to have something to do,” they wail, piteously. What they mean, of course, is that they’ve lost the ability to imagine using their minds for any reason other than making money and they are fearful of sliding into boredom.
How can one be bored in a world such as this? The only reason I can think of is flaccidity of mind that approaches mental illness. One can be fearful, or discouraged, or fed up. One can contemplate the possible outcome of the presidential election that will be held in a few days, and begin to get his emigration papers in order. But bored? It makes no sense.
Whenever I meet someone with the pre-retirement blues, I say, “Have you read Tactitus? Have you read Herodotus?” And I always get some version of the same answer: first a blank look, and then the response that’s it’s too late to take up that kind of thing. Often a person will say, I tried to read this, or that, but I just couldn’t get into it. People who respond in that way have no grasp that the mind requires conditioning just as the body does. They have read nothing more demanding than newspapers or inter-office memoranda for the past twenty-five years, and then when they pick up a serious book they have trouble getting into it. Big surprise! They are in exactly the same situation as the man who sets out to run a marathon when he hasn’t walked a mile since he can remember. Of course they can’t do it. But, if they can’t read a chapter, they might read a page; and if they can’t read a page they might read a paragraph; and if they can’t read a paragraph they might read a sentence. And even a sentence a day is far better than the pure intellectual nothingness the average American thinks he can sustain year after year. The mind can’t live that way. It will die. There’s increasing evidence that even the most pathological of senilities are hastened by an absence of intellectual endeavor. So even if you don’t care about the difference between pure and practical reason you might pick up Immanuel Kant as a way of putting off the day when you find yourself strapped in a chair in an institution for the mentally vacant, with somebody having to pay $50,000 every year to keep you there.
Don’t mistake me. There will be some breakdowns despite our best efforts. And when people do fall into debility they deserve our loving care. That’s the least we can expect of ourselves as a civilized people. But, by taking thought and putting forth some effort, we can reduce the number of breakdowns, and every one we avoid frees energy and imagination for positive tasks.
My second duty involves one of the most vexing problems that confronts us as social beings: that is the moral health of our systems, organizations, and institutions. To pave the way for the point I want to make about them I’m going to indulge in a short personal reminiscence. I am a Southerner. What that means is that I was raised in the American South, and was formed by the tastes, rhythms, and tones of that region. My vision of paradise will always be waking up on a spring morning with boughs of wisteria drapped across my open window. I was created as a part of the history of the South and no matter how long I live in Vermont, I will always be a Southerner.
I grew up in the time before the supreme court decision that is generally known as Brown vs. Board of Education. During my youth, not a single person in authority that I knew-not a parent, not a relative, not a teacher, not a clergyman, not a public official--ever once said that there was anything askance in the system of racial relations that surrounded us. Black children did not go to our schools. When black people got on the bus, they had to sit in the back, and if there were no seats vacant in the back they had to stand up, even if there were seats vacant in the front. When they went to the grocery stores they had to drink out of separate water fountains, that were labeled as being for them. They could not eat in the fashionable restaurants, regardless of how well they were dressed or how much money they had in their pockets. These are not things I know from faded newsreels. I know them from having lived them. They were perfectly normal, so normal that none of the people I knew ever gave them a thought--or, if they did, they never said anything about it.
Think about it: a child is raised, and all the people in charge of him, all the people who taught him, all the people who showed him how to behave, all the good people, all the respectable people, were dead wrong. And not just wrong about some petty point, but wrong on a moral issue of overweening importance. If you have that experience and it doesn’t make a deep impression on your thinking, then you’ve got to be brain-dead.
I guess I could have concluded that I was unlucky enough to have been born among a race of monsters. But that would have been silly. They weren’t monsters. They were loving, and kindly, and full of life and fun. They cared about me and did what they thought was right for me. I remember virtually all of them with deep affection. They were normal people involved in a system that was severely flawed, and they went along with it because that’s what people do; they go along with the systems in which they are immersed. And, if no one from outside challenges the system, the system will go on forever. It’s not that some people inside can’t see the flaws; it’s just that from inside they can’t marshall enough force or enough independence to effect a change.
In my life I have not yet met with a perfect system, or a perfect organization. Some are better than others, but they all have fairly serious systemic flaws which keep them from performing the tasks they are charged with, and cause them, regularly, to mangle lives they encounter. The institutions in which I spent much of my existence are no exception. I remember years ago when I was talking, in the lunch line, with Ben Collins, who had recently come to work at my college from a fairly high post in state government. I asked him how he liked higher education, and how he found it different from his previous occupation. And he replied, “My God, John! In politics there is at least some concept of honor.” I heard virtually the same thing later from Jack Andrews, a man who in a fit of idealism left his six-figure position in the business world and moved into college administration. I don’t think he ever got over the shock of what he found.
Now, one might ask: so what if professors, and deans, and presidents carve one another up in mean-spirited fits of egotism and back-stabbing? They’ve all got it coming, don’t they? Well, here’s the so-what: the institutions these people staff are supposed to be performing a public service. That’s why we pay them the ever-increasing amounts of money they claim to need. To the degree they are using those resources for self-gratification and internecine struggle they are, in effect, stealing from the public. What we must remember is that colleges and universities are not unique in their larcenous impulses. All institutions deplete the public well-being to some extent, and they can never be completely stopped. The reason is that they are us, and we all want our cut.
What we can do, however, with our better selves, is attempt to reduce the flow of misplaced institutional effort. And as soon as we imagine the possibility, we have to start asking what sort of processes or mechanisms will allow us to do it. This is where the old folks come in.
There are many unfortunate features of getting old. We are reminded of them everyday on television, and we seem to be obsessed with setting them aside. But in our mania of trying to stay young forever, it’s easy to forget that there are some very good things about old age. Chief among them is a kind of independence that is impossible while one is enthralled by the passions of institutional life.
A feature of institutions we must not forget is that they all lie. The biggest lie they tell is that they are ready to face criticism, to engage in vigorous dialogue, and to make changes when reason dictates. That’s not how institutions behave. If you go up against the power structure of your institution, no matter how noble your cause, you’d better be ready to have your institutional head chopped off. I’ve heard numerous college presidents say how they welcome vigorous dissent and how they never hold grudges against people who disagree with them. There’s never been greater foolishness talked in the history of the world, and the truth that presidents generally believe their own nonsense doesn’t make it any less nonsensical. If a person is the chief executive officer of anything, the chances are at least 99% that he’s an egomaniac. And egomaniacs have notoriously thin skins and extremely long memories.
Put yourself in the shoes of a forty-five year old middle-level executive, with two kids about to go to college, and a mortgage payment that eats up more than a quarter of your income. Let’s say you discover something in your institution that is dead wrong and that ought to be changed, and that this thing is not some petty matter that nobody really cares about, but is central to the functioning of the institution. Can anybody expect you to be brave and say so, when you know it risks the security not only of yourself but of the people you love? On the old TV series Star Trek they used to say that only one man in a million can command a star ship. Those are about the same odds of finding a person who will risk himself to right the wrongs of an institution he depends on. Why do you suppose during the first years of the 1940s, millions of people in central Europe were marched off to murder camps? Do you think the people who did it, didn’t know it was wrong?
At some point of life, usually during the later years, a person will be extruded out the wrong end of an institution, with, or without, the proverbial gold watch. And then, he or she is free. Thank God Almighty! There is no greater blessing. But freedom from the trammels of institutional life does not mean you’re free of caring, or, at least, it ought not to. If you wanted people to be educated before they got you, you’re still going to want people to be educated. The way you perform your duty has, necessarily, changed. But the duty is still there. And you need to find some way to carry it out. There is no formula for this process. One of the features of freedom is that the formulas are taken away. But formulas aren’t for mature people anyway. Mature people are supposed to use their minds to decide what’s best to do.
Your knowledge will still be intact. You know what goes on. And now you are free to speak the truth. One of the most striking features of retired or defeated politicians is how quickly they grow in wisdom after they are out of office. I heard Newt Gingrich talking on the television a few weeks ago, and he almost made sense.
The opportunities for service and reform aren’t obvious. But they do exist, and if older people will keep their eyes open they can find them. You know the old cliche about how you can accomplish almost anything if you don’t care about taking credit for it? That pretty well describes the situation of older people. They can serve as the voice of our best selves if they will simply see their duty and push forward with it. I think we should all encourage them, because unless they do, our institutions are likely to become more and more corrupt, and siphon away more of the joy of life than they do already.
Now, on to my third duty. I am going to take as my text for it two passages from the Bible. I should say, in passing, that as I grow older I become more and more fond of the Bible. I am not one of those who believe that it is the plenary word of God and even if I should discover that it is, it wouldn’t much change my attitude towards it. I am enough an advocate of the New Criticism to care more for what a book says than for who wrote it. I agree with Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College, who shocked certain portions of the Victorian public by saying in 1860, in a controversial book titled Essays and Reviews, that one should read the Bible as he reads any other book. When one does read the Bible that way, he or she is bound to find great treasures in it.
A week from tonight I am going to the library in Wolcott to talk about a biography of Jesus. In preparation for that occasion, I’ve been reading through the Gospels. Each time I confront these texts I am more taken by their power, and by the shining figure that emerges from them. They are among the greatest stories in the world, and that’s why I love them. I don’t know anything about the nature of Jesus or of the historicity of the acts attributed to him. I leave all that to persons more theologically adept than I. But, even if it should be proven to me, incontrovertibly, that Jesus was exactly the being that orthodox Christianity says he was, it wouldn’t cause me to respect him any more than I do already. As a literary figure alone he is deeper than I can delve.
Some of you will recall that in Matthew, Jesus goes up on a mountain to speak to the crowds that have gathered around him. This talk has come to be known as the sermon on the mount. In it, Jesus said a lot of things, but the part of it I like best comes in the first verses of Chapter 7. I’ll read them to you:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there’s a log in your own eye?” You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
It seems to me that this passage goes together pretty well with another incident which occurs in the Fourth Gospel. This involves a time when Jesus was in Jerusalem, and had been teaching a group in the temple. His actions didn’t set well with some of the authorities, and they confronted him in the way described in these verses from the 8th Chapter of John:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
Now, why do you suppose it was the eldest that left first?
Last week I went to see Hollywood’s latest version of high-powered politics, a film titled The Contender, in which Jeff Bridges plays the president of the United States in a rather over-the-top fashion, like an amalgam of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. In one scene he’s having a press conference with a visiting head of state, in which he is asked about an alleged sexual indiscretion on the part of a person he has recently nominated to fill the vacant vice-presidency. He replies that he’s sure that both he and his fellow president would be glad to conduct a campaign in which they would be guaranteed of receiving the votes of all their citizens who had committed sexual indiscretions. It was just a little offputting joke in the film, but it makes an interesting point.
Anyone who has lived very long and is willing to be even halfway honest with himself knows that he has done things, or been right on the verge of doing things, that have got other people into serious trouble. No one of us has much business being personally judgmental, because no one of us occupies a moral plane that gives us that right. When I was a boy, the preachers I heard proclaimed repeatedly that we all fall short of the glory of God. Life has taught me that we all fall damned short.
While we’re on this point we’ll do well to remember an important distinction, which is too often ignored. Judgment and opinion are not the same things. We all have opinions about other people and we like to sit round with our friends and give voice to our opinions about people we don’t like. “What a jerk,” we say, or “creep”, or “snotnose”. We like to say things like that. They give us a lot of pleasure. And I have no interest in reducing the amount of pleasure in the world. But, I do want to remind us that when we move from opinion to judgment, we are stepping over a line into another realm.
A great 19th century work of history which is not read much nowadays is James Fitzjames Stephen’s three volume treatment of the criminal law of England. In it he reminded us that judges are society’s agents of violence, and in another work he pointed out that through the criminal law men rightfully and deliberately and in cold blood, kill, enslave, and torment their fellow citizens. This is not just a 19th century insight. Robert Coover, a professor of law at Yale, taught that the judge lives in an environment of violence. And then he went on to say, “Not only is he touched by that violence, he perpetuates it; his every decision, however justified, does violence to one party or the other in the dispute.”
When we judge, we take actions against other people that hurt them. That is a very different thing from merely expressing an opinion about them. To move from opinion to judgment is an ominous step, one that no mature person ought to enjoy. Yet we are a society awash in judgment. We make judgments incessantly, and most of the time we make them for causes that won’t stand the light of reason.
I have worked for many organizations in my lifetime, and almost every one of them had some formal system for rating and judging the performance of its employees. Not a one of those systems was either accurate or fair, and not a one of them ever did anything to improve the effectiveness of the organization. They existed for one reason alone and that was to allow the people with power to indulge themselves in judgment without having to take personal responsibility for the damage they did to other people’s lives. I have never heard such hypocrisy talked as by officials engaged in cramming people through these systems for the supposed purpose of helping them improve themselves.
We need to learn that the desire to judge is a natural juvenile inclination which civilization ought to cure us of. And if the experienced and elderly members of a society-those who have seen the ravages of bad-thinking-- will not stand up for civilization, then no one will.
At the moment, our country is the laughing stock of the world because of our inclination to throw people into prison. We incarcerate a greater percentage of our citizens than any other developed nation. Right now the number is something over two million, and the cost of keeping these people locked up exceeds six billion dollars a year. Supposedly we do this to reduce crime, yet our crime rates remain higher than those of other nations. Is it to be believed that Americans are inherently worse than the other peoples of the world? And, if it is, why are they?
We have no way of counting the cost of all this judgment. But we can be fairly confident that just as violence begets violence, the resort to judgment begets the seeming necessity of ever greater judgment. How many children are beaten every night because of judgments that took place at work during the day? How many automobile crashes occur because of frustration over being judged? How many crimes are committed? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But I do know that being judged causes anger, regardless of the circumstances. And anger finds vent.
The logical alternative to judgment is persuasion. And persuasion is the weapon of the old--or at least it ought to be. Young people are quick to judge because they have too few words to persuade; they haven’t lived long enough to learn them. It is the duty of the old to teach the young to resort to judgment only in extreme circumstances. Sometimes, it’s true, judgment can’t be avoided. If a man murders one of his fellow citizens, we are forced to judge because we fear that otherwise he might kill again. But the occasions when we think judgment is required will be reduced radically if we can replace the callow eagerness to judge that our society now exhibits with a mature reluctance to interfere violently in one another’s lives. We have the right to expect the old to help us in this way because they are the only portion of our population that can. Every elderly member of society ought to be engaged continually in asking, “Wait a minute; do we really have to do this?”
My fourth duty can be explained fairly quickly because it flows readily from the previous two. The text for it comes not from the Bible but from classical literature. I came on it when I was quite young, and it has, over the years, proved itself to be one of the most influential things I ever read. Writing in Academica, his attempt to deal with epistemology, or the problems of knowledge, the Roman statesman Cicero puts this question to all of us: “May I have your leave not to know that which I do not know?”
There is, of course, an ancient and honored doctrine, associated primarily with Socrates, which holds that all wisdom consists in not thinking that you know what you don’t know. Cicero’s formulation is no more than a variation on it. He was not, after all, an original thinker. But he put things very well. I especially like his version of the Socratic dictate because it suggests that in social life it is often not permissible not to know what you don’t know, and, therefore, that if you don’t know, you have to pretend that you do.
I may be particularly drawn to the Ciceronian phraseology because I have lived much of my life in academic circles, where pretense of knowledge is a raging disease. I know that may sound exaggerated. What’s the harm in a little pretending? Isn’t it just one more of the egotistical defense mechanisms with which we surround ourselves, like hairpieces and elevator shoes? I don’t think it is; and here’s the reason. When we pretend to know something we don’t know, and, particularly, when we claim that this knowledge is about something important, we are obliged to surround ourselves with people who are under the same delusion. If we went out freely into the world, and talked openly with a variety of people, they would be likely to find out that we don’t know what we’re talking about. This danger, buried so deeply in the collective academic psyche that it’s probably not conscious anymore, is the reason for departments. If you immerse yourself in a department, then the stupidities and erroneous assumptions on which your discipline is based will never come up, and you can tootle on through life, wearing funny looking hats at graduation exercises, and talking nonsense as long as you wish.
Nonsense is not harmless. If it can avoid being challenged, it embeds itself in institutions, and then those institutions begin to render judgments based on it. When that happens people suffer and people die. The whole history of the world tells us this.
When I was a boy, I used to drive regularly past the Martha Battey Hospital in Rome, Georgia, named after the wife of the eminent physician Robert Battey. Dr. Battey became famous in the 1870s and 80s for “Battey’s Operation,” which he performed on women for “the effectual removal of certain otherwise incurable maladies.” Battey’s Operation involved the removal of the ovaries from healthy women, and the maladies this was supposed to cure were forms of nervousness, often associated with sexual desire. Dr. Battey mutilated hundreds of women because he knew that certain feelings in a woman were unnatural and therefore needed to be cured. This is a sad story for lots of reasons and one of them is the reputation of Robert Battey himself. He was in many ways a fine physician. He pioneered in the development of surgical techniques which were important in the evolution of medicine. Yet he is now remembered primarily for a discredited operation based on a foolish theory which he took to be knowledge.
We are misled by the notion that trial and error are a necessary part of social progress. Some errors may be inevitable. But not all are. They come about because people make them, and people make them because they are in a hurry to claim the status of knowledge for their own pet theories. A former president of this university was famed for saying that it’s better to make a bad decision today than a good decision tomorrow. I don’t know about that, but I can recall that when I heard him say it I would reflect that in some cases it’s best not to make any decision at all--today, tomorrow, or ever. We do, of course, have to make some decisions. When the waitress comes in the restaurant, we have to tell her what we want. With respect to things of that sort, I’m as decisive as anyone, and that’s because I know my decision doesn’t matter. I can eat swordfish as well as I can eat salmon, and the difference between them is not worth wasting even a minute of my time. When it comes to decisions of that kind, our former president was probably wise. But, there are other kinds of decisions.
When I was a sophomore, I thought I had to make up my mind about whether God exists. Now, I know that I never will. It’s not that I don’t know who God is; it’s that I don’t have a clue about what existence means. But my uncertainty doesn’t make me unhappy. At the very least it keeps me from going out and killing somebody because God told me to. And if we could have prevented people from doing that alone, just think how much happier the history of the human race would have been.
By the time you’ve lived past the middle term of life you know how very hard it is to be certain about anything. And you’ve seen lots of misery caused by people who thought they knew things they didn’t know. And you know, especially, how very little you know yourself. These are valuable lessons which all the other members of society are in need of learning. If you will teach them, then you will have performed your fourth duty.
We have lots of accounts about how to use old age. My favorite may be Tennyson’s very famous poem “Ulysses,” which tells the story of how the aging warrior Ulysses (or Odysseus in the Greek version) returns to his home island of Ithaca, after his adventures on the way back from Troy, with the intention of settling down there. But he discovers that settling down just won’t do. So he calls his old companions together and makes ready to set out on a new voyage. He knows they don’t any longer have all the powers they used to have and he knows there are no guarantees about what’s going to happen. But, ultimately, none of that matters. As he tells his men:
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
And, then, he charges them:
Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. And though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The final line gives me a pretty good overarching theme for my remarks. As older people we have a responsibility to teach society not to yield to nature, not to yield to rigid institutions, not to yield to ill-considered judgments, not to yield to cock-sure stupidity. If we do teach those things we will have done not too badly by our time.
As I get to my closing, I’m led back to the aforementioned Jesus. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, as you’ll remember, he calls his disciples together to give them instructions about going forth to cast out unclean spirits. And he warns them that it’s not going to be easy; they’ll be like sheep in the midst of wolves. But then he promises, “he who endures to the end will be saved.”
I don’t know if that’s true, and I certainly don’t know what being saved means. But, in the genuine sense of belief, I believe it, and I’m going to keep on believing it till the day I die, because to do otherwise would be unconscionable.
And, that’s all I’ve got to say tonight.