Retreat of the Elders

This is for those of you who have reached your advanced years and are now flirting with the attractions of solitude. Sometimes, it seems, this can be more than a flirtation.

Here are the symptoms: a penchant for eating at home; fewer visits with friends; a preference for books over TV; souring on politics and current affairs; pique with the common culture; suffering fools gladly; and so on. Covid, of course, made things worse.

You go to a party where most of the folks there are your friends. The conversation is the usual chit-chat about local happenings, friends who are ill, movies you’ve never seen, restaurants you never visited, travel plans you’re not concerned about, political opinions you don’t agree with. You drink too much and leave early.

It’s about feeling “out of tune,” as Wordsworth said in his poem “The world is too much with us.” When the vibes are bad it’s like you’ve come from a different world, captive to “a creed outworn.” You are out of tune with the common culture (or so it feels), with its emphasis on escape, schlock or shock in pop art, films, and more. To confirm this, take a jaundiced look at New York Magazine’s stories in The Cut and Vulture.

The urge to withdraw from it all, I think, is not just limited to us elders. People everywhere seem to be getting a bellyful of all the institutions of state, the customs and the verities we grew up with and trusted. Why else would so many swallow Trump’s patent medicines and hokum? What is MAGA if not an escape into a surreal fantasy? How did the craziness of Brexit take hold of so many Brits? All of this represents a kind of withdrawal.

We oldsters turn sour on so many things because we’ve lived long enough to lose most of our innocence. Yeats said it best in “The Second Coming.” You seniors may remember these lines.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So many sages have told us that aging is simply a loss of innocence. I don’t entirely buy that. I still remain innocent to many things, open to ideas, good books and conversation, thoughtful people, art and music. There’s just a whole lot less to be open to now. And that, my friends, requires regret but no apology.

4 Replies to “Retreat of the Elders”

  1. Amen, and eloquently expressed.
    Thank you also for reminding us that wise elders have expressed these sentiments long before us.

  2. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity” has seemed to me the problem most difficult to overcome in our present political situation. Much in this issue of the GS blog seems so familiar.

  3. This is why being a professor is a good profession. I have hope.

    Of History and Hope


    We have memorized America,
    how it was born and who we have been and where.
    In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
    telling the stories, singing the old songs.
    We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
    The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
    We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
    The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
    But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
    The disenfranchised dead want to know.
    We mean to be the people we meant to be,
    to keep on going where we meant to go.

    But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
    except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
    The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
    With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
    and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

    Who were many people coming together
    cannot become one people falling apart.
    Who dreamed for every child an even chance
    cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
    Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
    cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
    Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
    cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
    We know what we have done and what we have said,
    and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
    believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
    just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

    All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
    on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
    but looking through their eyes, we can see
    what our long gift to them may come to be.
    If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

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