By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Our bodies and our souls each have their separate aging process, and they aren’t always in harmony. T.E. Laurence, in “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” makes this comment about someone: “He feared his maturity as it grew upon him, with its ripe thought and finished art, but which lacked the poetry of boyhood to make living a full end of life … his rangeful, mortal soul was aging faster than his body, was going to die before it, like most of ours.”
I suspect that all of us, at some level, fear growing into maturity. It’s not so much that we don’t want to give up the habits of our youth or that we fear that the joys of maturity are second-best to the pleasures of youth. I believe there is a deeper reason. We fear, as Laurence puts it, that our maturity will strip us of the poetry of our youth and make us old before time. What does that mean?
We sometimes speak of an old soul inside a young person, and this is meant both as a compliment and a criticism, perhaps more the latter. We sometimes look at a young person whose body is full of life and overfull with energy and see a precociousness of soul that belies that youth and energy and we can’t help wondering whether that premature maturity isn’t inhibiting the life-principle. And so we have a mixed reaction: What a mature young person! But is his or her life too-grey and sterile before its time?
Reflecting on this, I was reminded of a comment that Raymond Brown once made in a class. The context of his remark is important. This was not the comment of a young man still looking to leave a mark on life, but rather the comment of a very mature, successful and respected man who was the envy of his peers. Nearly 70 years old, wonderfully mature, universally respected for everything from his scholarship to his personal integrity, he was a mature soul. And still his comment betrayed the subtle fear that perhaps his maturity had stripped him of some of the poetry of his boyhood. His comment was something to this effect:
You know when you reach a certain age, as I have now, and you look back on what you’ve done, you’re sometimes embarrassed by some of the things you did in your youth, not immoral things, just things that now, from your present perspective, seem immature and ill thought-out, things that you are now too wise to ever risk doing. Recalling them, initially you are a little embarrassed.
But then, in those moments where you feel your age and your present reticence, you sometimes look back and say: “That’s the bravest thing I ever did! Wow, I had nerve then! I’m much more afraid of things now!”
Jane Urquhart, the Canadian novelist, echoes this sentiment. Rereading one of her own books which she had written twenty years before, she comments: “It is tremendously satisfying to be able to reacquaint myself with the young woman who wrote these tales, and to know that what was going on in her mind intrigues me still.” What’s unspoken in her comment is her present admiration (and dare I say, envy) for the poetry that once infused her younger self.
I had a similar feeling some years ago when, for a new release of my book, “The Restless Heart,” I was asked to update it. I’d written the book when I was still in my twenties, a lonely and restless young man then, partly looking for my place in life. Now, nearly 25 years later and somewhat more mature, I was sometimes embarrassed by some of the things I’d written all those years back; but, like Raymond Brown, I marveled at my nerve back then, and, like Jane Urquhart, it was refreshing to reacquaint myself with the young man who had written that book, sensing that he had a livelier poetry and more verve in him than the older person who was rereading that text.
Some of us never grow-up. The body ages, but the soul remains immature, clinging to adolescence, fearful of responsibility, fearful of commitment, fearful of opportunity slipping away, fearful of aging, fearful of own maturity, and, not least, fearful of death. This is not a formula for happiness, but one for an ever-increasing fear, disappointment, and bitterness in life. Not growing-up eventually catches up with everyone, and what judged as cute at twenty, colorful at 30, and eccentric at 40, becomes intolerable at 50. At a certain age, even poetry and verve don’t compensate for immaturity. The soul too must grow-up.
But for some of us, the danger is the opposite, we grow old before our time, becoming old souls in still young bodies, mature, responsible, committed, able to look age, diminishment and mortality square in the eye, but devoid of the poetry, verve, color and humor which are meant to make a mature person mellow and alive, like a finely-aged old wine.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)