Do we grow wiser with age? Well, let’s not get too carried away. Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this: I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.
Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one’s ignorance is a good thing. It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair. It relieves us of the great weight of trying to “figure things out,” of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed. It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start: loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.
Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go. As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits. If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost. Something along these lines is required:
To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.
Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).
While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go. There’s no stopping them.
‘When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.’
For the days are long —
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity. But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.
Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).
As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long — “an eternity.” (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?) The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.
The swift years
Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.