On Old Age and On Friendship

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I remember the first time we came here, and what we were then, and that brings to mind my age, four years past sixty. Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards–the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees–have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.

Whatever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest. We never kidded ourselves that we had the political gifts to reorder society or insure social justice. Beyond a basic minimum, money was not a goal we respected. Some of us suspected that money wasn’t even very good for people–hence Charity’s leaning toward austerity and the simple life. But we all hoped, in whatever our capacities permitted, to define and illustrate the worthy life…

Leave a mark on the world. Instead, the world has left its mark on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused. In certain moods I might bleat that we were all trapped, though of course we are no more trapped than most people. And all of us, I suppose, could at least be grateful that our lives haven’t turned out harmful and destructive. We might even look enviable to the less lucky…

I didn’t know myself well, and still don’t. But I did know, and know now, the few people I loved and trusted. My feeling for them is one part of me I have never quarreled with, even though my relations with them have more than once been abrasive.

In high school, in Albaquerque, New Mexico, a bunch of us spent a whole year reading Cicero–De Senuctate, on old age; De Amicitia, on friendship. De Senuctate, with all its resigned wisdom, I will probably never be capable of living up to or imitating. But De Amicitia I could make a stab at, and could have any time in the last thirty-four years.

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