Keith Merrill I United States
“Youth is wasted on the young”. Who said those profound words? The general consensus is that the quote came from George Bernard Shaw. I don’t know what epiphany led Mr. Shaw to that utterance but, for me, those six words beautifully convey a sense of unavoidable truth, sadness, and humor all rolled into one. The old refrain “if I had known then what I know now!” Of course, there are exceptions. Not all of us get wiser or more reflective as we get older and not all of the young are devoid of any wisdom or perspective. But, those are the exceptions. Youth, age, and perspective are predominantly a one-way journey.
Arrogant and Impatient Youth
Do you recall how, as a child, time crawled between one Christmas and the next? Or, how a school year seemed to plod on and on in excruciating sluggishness? It seemed like the calendars our moms hung on their refrigerators lasted five years instead of one!
Part of our childish perspective of time was due to our relatively short experience of it. When we were, say, 8 years old the passage of a single year represented a whopping 12.5% of our total life experience up to that point. Therefore, that single year appeared to pass oh so slowly. We were arrogant in our treatment of time because anything that moved at such a snail’s pace could not have been in short supply. That childish impatience had usually morphed into unadulterated arrogance by the time we hit our teens and, pitifully, lasted well into young adulthood. We wasted time away in much the same way as we now treat the useless pennies in our car’s coin holder. So what if we procrastinated? What’s the big deal if we mentally wished time away? There was always plenty more where that came from.
I have a personal memory that is very vivid. I was 23 years old at the time. I was into sports. I played on high-end softball teams, played a lot of tennis, basketball, etc. One night after a softball game I was lying on the couch in my cheap apartment marveling at how my athletic prowess had not seemed to diminish even at the advanced age of 23. I remember thinking that maybe I would be a freak of nature and never lose that proverbial “step”. Ooops!! That silly vision did not quite pan out.
….We were arrogant in our treatment of time because anything that moved at such a snail’s pace could not have been in short supply.
Photograph by Pascal Van De Vendel via Unsplash
The Transition Begins
At some point a subtle shift begins. Gradually—almost imperceptibly—it begins to manifest itself for most of us in mid-adulthood. By that point we have all experienced the hard slap of mortality within our circle of family and friends. The passing years have started to speed up just a bit. At 35 years old a flip from old calendar to new now represents less than 3% of our accumulated life. The years have just now started to crowd upon one another in a way that is noticeable. We also have our own children, which provide us with an ever-present yardstick to measure time. Reality has started to reveal its stern face but we only catch an occasional glimpse. Perspective remains elusive…..
Humbled and Stunned Sexagenarian
Flash forward to the age of 60. Were you not 40 just 5 years ago? Stunning. One passing year on that annoying calendar is now just a blip. Are you still groaning because it takes so long to get to the next Christmas? Probably not. Instead, it seems that by the time you stow away your Christmas tree you need to hurry up and go buy Halloween candy! Whenever you try to recall when a specific event occurred—like a movie release—you are way off the mark. You estimate that something happened 5 years ago but when you do a bit of fact-checking you discover that it was actually 10 years back. That would have never happened during your youth!
Whatever physical prowess we once took for granted has left the building. Quick reflexes, speed, fast recovery time…..all kaput. Every now and then, in a moment of exceptional delusion, we think we can recapture some of that vigor, only to have to reconsider as we lay at the bottom of a ladder or maybe in a recliner nursing two pulled hamstrings.
We are now much more jealous of our time. Maybe we get up earlier in the morning so as not to waste any more of our remaining allotment. We are not nearly as willing to fritter away time on pursuits that add no real value to our lives. We have finally gained some perspective.
And So the Cycle Repeats
We now take our inevitable place in the generational cycle. A cycle that has been repeated for millennia. We try to convey to our grandchildren, or other youth, the same wisdom that our elders did their best to impart on us. The lesson that time is precious. That nothing should be taken for granted. That good health and longevity are not birthrights.
And the divine comedy is that those youth look at us with blank faces and nod their heads in agreement; all the while mentally wishing next week would hurry up and arrive so that they can get their new iPhone 8! Our hard-earned perspective—that we ourselves completely lacked at their age—will be casually cast of as “old person’s syndrome”.
Fret not, however; in 40 years or so they will get it.
“Youth is wasted on the young”. Yes indeed. Just an unchanging fact in the wonderful, precious, maddening, and meandering thing we call life.