This piece ran in newspapers on the weekend of May 19, 2023
When it is Said to Young People:“You Can Do Anything”
Over the years, I’ve frequently heard people say to young people, “You can be whatever you want to be” or “You can accomplish anything you set your mind to do.”
I don’t think those are good things for kids to be told.
For one thing, it’s not true.
I expect that, when I was growing up, I worked as hard at being a great basketball player as the guys who went on to play on good college teams. But I never got better than being a starter on a good high school team (and on that team I was not the MVP). It wasn’t for lack of effort, nor of ambition. My athletic abilities just didn’t rise to that level.
And if it isn’t true, it could hurt kids to believe it.
It’s tough enough dealing with the disappointment of discovering one’s limits. The pain of such disappointments shouldn’t be compounded by blaming oneself for supposedly squandering the greatness one could have achieved if only one had tried.
What can be valuable in that message is the idea that one should work toward one’s goals, not admitting defeat without even having striven to win. “Go for it!” seems a good message, so long as “it” makes sense, so long as one takes into account what the evidence suggests about what might be possible.
Aspirations help us to “Be all that you can be!,” as the Army used to say in its ads. And trying to make the most of one’s gifts is a good way to find fulfillment in life, regardless of one’s limits.
But limits are a part of life.
Which brings to my mind another saying that one hears in American culture these days — another to which I take exception: “Age is just a number.”
When it is Said to Old People: “Age is Just a Number”
This message too, though faulty, contains something of value. It can help protect against people giving up on living fully because of some concept of “old people.” It’s a valuable message that helps encourage people not to assume that mere age means their lives must be impoverished.
But once again, saying “Age is just a number” so exaggerates a valuable truth that it becomes false. Because age is far more than “a number.” It is a measure of the ticking of a clock that we were all born with—a clock that inevitably ticks out a lifetime, and ends in death.
Age, therefore, represents a real challenge to us humans (the species sometimes described as the one that knows it is going to die).
On the way to that ultimate dissolution, there’s the challenge of dealing with a process of deterioration.
For me, that process has not yet been so bad. When I go this summer to my 60th (!) high school reunion, I expect that I will be among those who look, act, and presumably feel younger than most.
But I have plenty of reminders that, as a creature with an animal body, I’m past my prime. In the variety of ways my organism has changed, Age has revealed itself to be more than “a number.”
(Age has also shown itself to me as more than a number as I’ve had to watch some of the people with whom I’ve grown older over many decades losing significant ground, and some having departed this life.)
Recognizing how Age is more than a number is part of coming to terms with the human condition.
It is truly good to make the most of life. But one of the spiritual tasks embedded in the drama of a human life is to come to terms with the limits implied in the line from the famous syllogism: “All men are mortal.”
No doubt about it: possessing human consciousness brings with it some challenges.
To pretend we don’t know what we know — saying “Age is just a number” – would lack spiritual integrity.
How much should we keep our attention on being more alive, looking away from the inevitability that lies ahead? And how much on facing one’s mortality in some wise and courageous way?
I see no need to obsess about the reality of our mortality, but my values say that ideally one doesn’t ignore reality.
Eventually, there will be a future without us. (Seeing pictures of groups of people from earlier times has brought that home to me: one can’t help but notice that not one of them is around today.) Recognizing that is part of seeing one’s place in the great scheme of things.
One comes into life. And then one passes out of life. The generations flow from one to the next, each dropping away in its turn.
But I must admit, I’m not all that impressed with how well I’ve met that challenge so far. I find it hard to wrap my mind around my temporariness.
At the living-fully side of things, meanwhile, I succeed better. Enough aliveness like the image sold by the “Age is just a number” ads, as they depict some sporty and beautiful older couple smiling excitedly.
As for how well I’ll fulfill that final spiritual task of life, time will tell.