I mentioned earlier that I thought to post about what getting older has gotten me and then thought better of doing so. Now, with some editing, here is the post I resisted.
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking about my age lately. Perhaps it is what I do instead of making resolutions at the new year. Though I know I’m the oldest of the permanent bloggers and I’m pretty sure I’m older than the average visitor to T&S, I’m not that old. I’m fifty-seven. Nevertheless, I have been thinking about being older off and on for a week or so, partly because of the phone call from Rudi that I referred to in the post to which I link, above.
Thinking about the fact that I am much nearer the end of my career than I used to be made me reflect on the last almost thirty years that I have been teaching. I asked myself how I have changed over that time. That isn’t an easy question to answer, especially since I don’t feel any different than I did when I started. I am still sometimes surprised when I see myself in the mirror and, at first, don’t realize that the old guy I see is me. I am always still surprised to be told that some particular ache or pain is “just age.”
Age is supposed to make one wiser, but I don’t feel any wiser. Psychologically I don’t think I feel any different than I did when I was in my mid-twenties. But one thing that has changed because I’m older is that other faculty at BYU are more likely to recognize me and, so, to listen if I have an opinion than they were when I first came here. But that has as much to do with longevity–and finally looking older–than perhaps anything else. When I first came to BYU, I was often (well into my thirties) mistaken for an undergraduate. Though, of course, my colleagues in the department and the college knew I wasn’t one, I think that my looks worked against me among them too. I was consistently thought of as “the new guy” even ten and more years after I arrived. However, one area in which I do feel wiser is in university politics. I think I understand better its unofficial structure and, so, how it really works. Unfortunately, that’s not a very important skill. It won’t even do me any good beyond my retirement date, much less in the hereafter.
I also think I am more relaxed about life than I used to be, and perhaps that is a kind of wisdom. I’m more relaxed professionally. I realize that I’m not going to write any important philosophy books, but I’m comfortable with being a teacher rather than an important scholar. The scholarship is important–without it I’m not likely to be a decent teacher–but it doesn’t define who I am. For a long time I hoped that perhaps I would get a fellowship (or, per impossibile a chair) that would give me a little more time and some resources for working on some of my pet projects, finishing my work on Romans, writing a book on community, sponsoring conferences, attending conferences, and so on. Now I see that as unlikely, but I don’t feel bad about it. I see my contribution to BYU in what I’ve done as a teacher (more about that later). Recently being able to work, campus-wide, on questions of faith and the intellect is also something I’m enjoying very much, and it may be a more important contribution than whatever I might have done as a scholar.
I think I am more relaxed and, so, a little wiser in my relations to my children, now that it is too late for my wisdom to help them much. I’m a better father now than I was, though I don’t know whether that is because I’ve changed or because it is easier to be the father of adult children. I also think I’m a reasonably good grandfather, though that is quite easy: play with them, tickle them, give them candy, remember their birthdays, go the movies with them occasionally, and take their side against their parents. It’s a cinch.
I also think I’m a better husband than I was, but that, too, may be as much a consequence of changing circumstances as anything else. By American standards we aren’t wealthy, though we live much better than a huge percentage of the world’s population. By American standards we live comfortably. Not having big financial concerns nor children’s problems has removed two of the biggest possible sources of contention between us (though the few real arguments we had were over children rather than money). Janice and I have always had a good marriage, but I think it is better than ever now.
I think I’m also more relaxed in my other personal relations. The reasons are too complicated and too personal to discuss, but I think I have been able to get beyond caring what opinions others have of me and, so, also to get beyond secretly caring what position in the Church I hold. All of my life in the Church I’ve known that I ought not to covet position. All that time, I’ve despised the fact that, secretly, I did anyway–in spite of myself. I truly didn’t want position and, at the same time, I wanted the “honor” of the position. Now I’ve been liberated from that desire, with surprising consequences.
For example, I’ve come to understand that if someone doesn’t like the way I do my church job, the “worst” that can happen is that I won’t someday be called to be a bishop, a stake president, or a mission president. Once I thought about what that really meant–that I wouldn’t be given difficult responsibilities, but my relationship to God wouldn’t be changed one whit–I relaxed a whole lot. I’m not a very rebellious person. I got over that shortly after the 60s. I think I am willing to take counsel and to recognize that my judgment is sometimes not very good. Nevertheless, in the end I don’t fear that someone might think I’ve made a mistake. After listening to counsel, praying, and thinking, I do what seems best to me. If those who supervise me don’t agree with the course I’ve taken, I don’t mind being released. That’s their call; having them disagree with me about what I’ve done doesn’t hurt my feelings.
I feel the same way about the various jobs I’ve had in the university though, as Matthew, my second son, pointed out, it is a lot easier to feel that way when “We don’t like the job you’ve done as x” means “Go back to your department and teach your classes” rather than “Clean out your office and hit the sidewalk.”
In contrast, however, I’m less sure of myself as a teacher today than I used to be. For a couple of years I’ve been relatively unsuccessful at engaging first-year students, so I’ve decided not to teach them any more. I’ll leave that to younger professors who can get their interest better. I’m not sure why I don’t seem to be able to make contact with them and draw them into conversations about philosophy. It is tempting to take the traditional route and say, “There’s something wrong with this younger generation,” but I think the problem is at least as much on my side of things as it is on theirs, and I am fairly sure that my age has a lot to do with it. I can’t get across whatever chasm that creates. There was a time when I had a more friendly and personal relation with students, including beginning students. The difference in our ages makes that a lot harder today, and for first-year students, I think the difference is fatal.
On the other hand, thank goodness, I think I am still able to engage upper-division philosophy students, so I’ll continue to teach those classes. I look forward to meeting with them, and I often leave class exhilarated by what has happened. Rather than sitting and staring at me, no matter what, the students in these classes ask questions, respond to mine, talk to each other, say interesting things, . . . . That is where the pleasure of teaching is.
Another result of age is that I’m much more concerned about civility, manners, dress, and such than I used to be. I think that change has been gradual, but it became clear to me that I was changing several years ago, living in Paris. I had library privileges at the Ecole Normale Superieur. There I found everyone but me dressed in slacks and a sport coat. Some had ties, some did not, but everyone was wearing a jacket and slacks, and I was in a sport shirt and jeans–though only for the first day. I realized that the etiquette of the library required more than jeans, and that etiquette seemed reasonable and natural, though it wouldn’t have when I was in my 20s or perhaps not in my 30s. That change in my thinking about dress is reflected in other ways as well. One of those is, as I’m sure many who frequent Times and Seasons have noticed, I am very much opposed to the kind of nastiness that sometimes gets started on venues such as this. I think that Emmanuel Levinas (a twentieth-century Lithuanian-French philosopher) was right to think of good manners as the best example of the relation to “the Other.” Chalk it up to age.
Religiously one of the biggest changes is that I’m not as interested in what will happen to me in the hereafter as I once was. I’m much more interested in what happens to us now. Sometimes I think my feelings about the hereafter are a manifestation of confidence: I’m confident about the things I’ve come to believe, so I don’t worry about it. Occasionally I’m less sure: perhaps they just show that I don’t care. But the truth is that I really don’t think much about the Second Coming nor the hereafter nor other things like them, nor do I worry about which reason explains my lack of worry. I assume the hereafter will take care of itself if I take care of this life, and if I don’t take care of this life, then worrying about the next will be pointless. I have a strong testimony of the Gospel. That isn’t a problem and rarely has been since my conversion. I think that the covenants we make are crucial. I wish I did a better job of acting on the seriousness with which I believe I should take the obligations those covenants create. But I am uninterested in questions about the signs of the times or the millennium, about the levels in the Celestial Kingdom, about whether people can move from one kingdom to another, and so on. I’m not very interested in which resurrection I’ll be in, while, at the same time, I cannot imagine living without Janice.
Oh, and I’m a better cook than I used to be.