Old Men

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
-East Coker, T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot produced his poetic masterpiece The Four Quartets while in his late forties and early fifties. Time is a theme throughout The Four Quartets, but in second quartet he narrows this to a mediation on old age. A subject which, for obvious reasons, must have been on his mind. He concludes the second quartet, called “East Coker,” with the lines quoted above. He is not suggesting through them, that old men go trekking through deepest Africa. Rather he is speaking of a different type of exploration, one that is much neglected in this age. The proper occupation for old men, according to Eliot, is internal exploration, a journey into the human soul.

Far too many old men die before they die. Old age has deprived them of the physical abilities and enjoyments of their their youth. Whatever careers they had in middle age are now complete. Death has appeared on the distant horizon. What can they achieve in the short time that is left, when all meaningful accomplishments are behind them? They feel they have run out of time. And so they respond by passively waiting for death to come. What they forget is that they actually have a wealth of time. They have had fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years in which to experience life and pursue wisdom. Now, without the distractions of children and a career, they have the leisure to explore.

Youth is not altogether carefree. I’ve been around and listened to enough young people to know that youth can be full of anxiety and hurt. Young people need old men and women who are physicians of the soul, who know its proper nurture and care. In George MacDonald’s Phantastes, the main character, a young man, comes upon a cottage. The cottage is a single room and in each of the four walls is a door. Living in this cottage is an old woman. By going through each of the doors, the young man has a different experience. One of these breaks his heart in the way love will do to young men. When he returns to the cottage, the ancient woman is there. Knowing what he has seen, she holds him as he cries and sings words of comfort to him. She is not there to dismiss his pain, but to enter into it with him and in effect, to take some of it upon herself.

When I am an old man, I hope that I will have learned some of the care and nurture of the soul. When I am old man, I hope to go exploring and be able to say to a younger generation, “Come explore with me.”


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