The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 9 (December 2, 1935)
A Chat About Youth and Age
“The years teach much which the days never know.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Young men are fitter to invent than to judge, and fitter for new projects than for settled business; for the experience of age, in things that fall within the compass of it, directeth them; but in new things abuseth them. The errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged meu amount to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.”
—Lord Francis Bacon.
Many writers in New Zealand and other countries have commented wisely or foolishly on the revolt of the world's impetuous youth against subjection to staid age, which is denounced as “stodge.” Yet there is much stodge among young men as well as among the middle-aged or the old—for stodginess springs from stodge, as a plant from seed. The current youthful impatience of restraint is merely repeating the history of the ages, with the difference that the present attitude of youth is intensified by the world-wide reaction against customary standards of living, thinking, writing, painting, carving, and so on. This revolution has found expression in the queer noise of jazz, “cubist art,” and prosy verse (about as much like real poetry as a blighted drumhead cabbage is like a pedigree rose).
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In Bacon's essay, “Of Youth and Age,” first published three centuries ago, one sees much that can apply well enough to men of to-day. Here are some of the shrewd philosopher's comments:—
“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold, stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced on absurdly.”
“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success. Certainly, it is good to compound employments of both (youth and age); for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both.”
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The ideal is, of course, the young-old man (not too old)—the man who retains the zest of youth, tempered by experience, which has learned to turn earlier mistakes into the mile-stones of success. His failures have not filled him with fear of new enterprise; they have taught him what to do, and how to do it—and he does it, and goes on, and does more. Such a man can inspire younger men, and he himself stimulated by them.
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Sadly opposite to that type is the elderly man who is cautious to the degree of inertness. He has been so impressed by the failures of others that he believes the heavy hand of fate is hard against new enterprise. He is so afraid of falling that he hesitates even to walk—and the mere suggestion of a quick run would appal him. He prefers to sit—to sit tight, and tighter. For him the line of least resistance and most subsistence; for him the safe narrow way of routine, which has no turning towards any field of adventure. He checks enthusiasm, he damps ardour. He sees the negative side of things, the objections, the difficulties. He is the immovable object against which hopeful youth hurls itself and crashes. Such dead old men in positions of power—dead in everything except the desire to make more money in unromantic ways—have blocked the progress of many young men, equipped and qualified for big achievement—but the young men, if they persist, will win out, one way or another, and may themselves become numbered among the “immovable objects” in the future, if their souls do not soar occasionally above materialism.
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Many young folk, when they first become keenly conscious of currents of thought about men and affairs, are apt to imagine that the flow is altogether new and wonderfully “live”—powerful enough to give new turns to the world's wheels. They go through a period of “not-understoodness” — go into the garden and eat a few worms, and have some tantrums. They seek their kind, and have arguments and debates and demonstrations in a frenzy of impulsive energy — a great theoretical righting of wrongs and the total abolition of injustice. They let off plenty of steam, but it is about as ineffective as the spurts from a boiling kettle. A young man in that mood is like a donkeyengine at a loose end, with more donkey than engine in the outfit.
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Other young men, less introspective and less reformative (of the other fellow), may mistake mere animal spirits—the effervescence of juvenile spirit—for ability to do big things, but the workings of their minds may be no more purposeful than the frolics of a kitten, or the gambols of the lambkin which eventually settles down into the stolid Romney Marsh or Border Leicester, or the unmerry Merino. That type of young man may have been in the mind of Emerson when he wrote these lines:—
“Do you see that kitten chasing so prettily her tail? If you could look with her eyes, you might see her surrounded with hundreds of figures performing complex dramas, with tragic and comic issues, long conversations, many characters, many ups and downs of fate—and meantime it is only puss and her tail.”
“Under the oldest and mouldiest conventions, a man of native force prospers as well as in the newest world, and that by skill of handling and treatment. He can take hold anywhere.”
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The traditional negative obstructive stage of age—the kind of age which invariably results in a drying up of the vital juices—is notable throughout the world in many large establishments, public and private, folbig organisations tend to be very cautious and conservative. Beginning his career in one of those folds, a young man may be overflowing with initiative and buzzing with progressive thoughts and impulses, which are an affront to the seniors. They throw much cold water upon him, and beset his path with entanglements, and club-him occasionally until he lapses into the mood to let time and tide take their course, carrying him in his turn to the top, from which he will be able to repeat history for the beginners far below. But in these cases it is not so much the age of the individual as the age of the institution which makes, things difficult for the young man.page 63