Gifts of Old Age: by robert lynd

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Aug 20, 1949

Gifts of Old Age

    On reaching my sixtieth birthday, if I remember right, I felt very little difference between being sixty and being fifty.

    On reaching my fiftieth birthday I did not feel much changed since I was forty. And forty and thirty seemed more or less the same age.

    Between thirty and twenty, however, there was a considerable difference, since by the time I was thirty I had discovered that—incredible as it had once seemed—I was capable of earning a living. But the difference between thirty and twenty is as nothing compared with the difference between twenty and ten.

    On one’s twentieth birthday it is impossible to pretend to oneself that one is the coeval of boys of ten.

    One has passed through a decade of revolution and emerged almost a different animal — an animal that wears trousers and shaves and (perhaps) smokes and enjoys with ecstatic joy almost anything that is put on in the theatre — that has endured more than once the pangs of unrequited love and defends modern authors vehemently in talk with the older generation and that knows the cure for the world’s ills and the shortest cut to the Earthly Paradise.

    No change so violent will ever happen again. Mr. Shaw at the age of ninety is, I fancy, more like what he was at twenty than Mr. Shaw aged twenty was like George Bernard aged ten.

    I suddenly reflected the other day that I must be older than King Lear or Polonius or almost any of those old men who seem so decrepit and garrulous in their representation on the Shakespearean stage.

    Lear, with so young a daughter as Cordella, must have been at least twenty years younger at the time of his death than I am at present. Yet there is a photograph in the current number of the “Radio Times” of Mr. Donald Wolfit in the part which makes him look about twenty years old than Mr. Shaw. Men grew old earlier, it is said, in those far-off days before tobacco and tea and coffee had vitalised Europe. All the same it is hard to believe that all fathers once looked so like grandfathers and great-grandfathers as they are made to look in the plays of Shakespeare.

    Polonius, with a daughter so young as Ophelia and a son at the university, was, I should say, about forty-five years old. Yet, though I am far nearer the doddering age than he, I never see him on the stage without feeling a good many years his junior.

    Still I feel old enough — distinctly older than I felt ten years ago. A mile walk now seems long to me and I dislike sitting in a draught. I enjoy going to bed at an hour that a few years ago I should have thought disgraceful.

    I would rather listen to music on the wireless than in a concert hall. And it seems likely enough that never again shall I enjoy the pleasures of party-going and watching games.

    I wish there were some respect in which I could affirm with truth that I had improved in age. But I fear there is none unless, it may be, that my will has grown stronger.

    A few months ago, for example, I had enough strength of will to give up smoking. Within the last week or two I discovered to my delight that I had enough strength of will to being smoking again.

    I intend, in the course of the next few weeks, to prove my strength of will by again abjuring tobacco. After a decent interval, I shall probably have enough strength of will to take to it again. And so on to the end of the chapter.

    Grit such as this seems to be one of the compensating gifts of old age. It is, I can assure my younger friends, well worth living to seventy to acquire it.

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