The Stages of Life
A description of the three stages of life: youth, adulthood, and decline.
The youth are foolish but rarely wrong. This is a symptom of holding freedom as the highest value. Youth is still wild. And to be wild is to prioritize the health of the spirit over the health of the body. It is to put feeling alive over staying alive. This, wisdom applauds and intelligence rebukes.
Our history is our identity. The youth are granted an airy optimism because, having no life-record, nothing is yet real about them. Youth exists only as potential. They can live in a dreamed of future because they have only the ever-forgiven history of childhood behind them. There is no anchor of reality to contend with yet. One day they’ll have a record, and with it gain an understanding of their place in this world; not of where they imagined soaring to but where they have actually landed. Perhaps they’ll do everything they’ve set out to and reflect with a sense of superiority, since so many don’t; or maybe they’ll disappoint themselves, learn of their weaknesses, and be humbled and chafed by life. Either way, they have yet to reach a certain threshold in solidification, a consequence of accumulating an immutable past, which marks adulthood.
The youth are the standard bearers of the race. They bring always a fresh breeze of impossible expectation. They are able to hold such a standard because they believe they will live up to it; while those older than them laugh at them, knowing they will not, but are reminded of that singular idealism nonetheless, which they themselves once believed in as well, and that, though wilted and worn, still blooms within them.
Youth are the renewers of idealism. Life steals from us the hope of perfection, and so it is incumbent on the next generation to reproach and remind all those who have preceded them of it. A young fool criticizes an old fool for failing to reach the sublime, and the old fool criticizes a young fool for aiming at the unachievable. Oh, old fool, did you never near the heart of wisdom sufficiently enough to recognize that striving for sublimity, despite nil chance of success, is the defining character of humanity? We strive even though we are guaranteed to fail, for our blessing is our curse, and it is in the bane of endless futility that we find our highest virtue: immortal hope. Fatalism is an age-related disease.
The existentialists confronted the absolute end directly. They spoke of the unspeakable, by confirming to themselves that our existence has no meaning. And what did they do next? They laughed. This is the only example one needs to understand all of human history — no, all of natural history. All that exists exists without reason; the animals fight and forage, flee and reproduce, and they do it for no other reason than to do it. Since the dawn of man, we looked to invent one motivation after another, but alas the last curtain fell, and there were no contrivances left, so we had only to admit: Like all else in existence, we move and work without reason, and happily so. To laugh still, this youth serves to remind us of.
Youth is the time for pain of the heart. The love of youth is an explosion. It is an exercise in prodigality. There is no dam on the river of young love. The love that could have flowed for a lifetime in a slow trickle, exhausts itself in a roaring torrent. The young understand passion best but know nothing of love.
Love wasn’t meant to cross generations, and in some ways this makes it all the more beautiful. The younger adult loves like fire and warms the soul of the older. The older loves like stone and teaches the young of fidelity. The young partner is hurt by the immovability of the older; the older partner is hurt by the volatility of the younger. The younger is hurt first; eager to rush into love, they find that the older has not kept pace. The cistern of love is slow to fill for the older, but it shall never spring a leak. One is hurt that they are not loved at first, and the other is hurt that they are not loved at last. Thus, it is always to the detriment of the older. He who loves last loves forever. Nonetheless, both have grown nearer to perfection because of it. All youth must be taught by their elders, and all elders must be taught by the youth.
The nexus of growth and decline is always a summit. Adulthood, then, must be the pinnacle of life. Yet, there is something Icarian in this climb. All of us are blinded by desire; we climb instinctively, but it is only from atop the mountain that we ask why we climb. The adult at every stage is more of a child than the child is. One is on surer footing when learning than when unlearning.
Adulthood is the time of pain for the spirit. It is the bridge between young and old, and a rope-bridge at that. It is always the least steady time in a person’s life, and by the playful irony of nature, it is also the most active. Adulthood is a time of unlearning youth and learning the virtues of the old. It is where energy meets dependability. It is a time for responsibility and bemoaning responsibility. Behind every adult face there is the discomfort of the spirit. This is high noon and all things have become too clear, but now is the time when fortunes are made.
True adulthood begins the day we realize we have always been lost. Adulthood is a recrimination. It is the often painful process of realizing and remedying one’s flaws. It is the discomfort of true self-awareness. It is the shedding of the skin of our youth, which we wear happily but regret thereafter. It is a mourning song of youth in one ear and the threatening drums of age and death in the other ear. It is a war song.
Now is the time in the arena. Now is the time of hardship, and with hardship comes opportunity. Just as one labors through a hard day for reward at the end, one must labor in adulthood for the rewards of life. This discomfort is a gift. Adulthood is marked by discomfort because improvement is uncomfortable. Youth is not the time for growth. Youth is the time for folly. Adulthood is painful because it is the time for doing.
The zenith of self is the nadir of love. Adulthood is the time of duty. Duty looks like love: Yet, while it serves others, it thinks and feels only for itself. Adulthood is doing what one must to love oneself. Romance is made for the young and the old. Adulthood is a time of duty, work, and self-love. It is the proving grounds, and though one is at this time most likely to find themselves outwardly caring for others, by way of their actions, inwardly, unlike at any other stage of life, they are primarily concerned with themselves.
It is only the habit of duty that prepares the mind for old age. Those who perpetually postpone the establishment of such a habit die old in body, child in mind, and unnatural chimera throughout. Those who have known no sacrifice die stunted. The selfish and unreliable beware: an unnatural indolence is constantly plagued by shame, for there is no unearned credulity before the arbiter of conscience, and it is followed by no less bitter a morsel than the hideous patchwork of childish mind in aged body. The moral laws are each of them self-enforcing.
The highest manifestation of elegance is to age well. There is no point in life where we are not called upon to change for the next role. Even as we decline in body and mind, we are called upon to grow in contentment, conviction, patience, and authenticity. The soul ready to shed its mortal garment should also relieve itself of all artifice, which is only the dress of the mind.
Old age is the time of pain for the body. Aging is all calcification. Rigormortus begins to set in as soon as one ceases to grow. Yet, there is virtue in this slow petrification of both body and soul. For the living statue, the emotions slow and time passes faster. This simultaneous acceleration of one aspect of our experience and deceleration of another aspect of our experience makes one patient. The young are moved by every ripple in the body of society. They are moved by every appearance. The elderly have seen the face of wisdom: the pattern that repeats over and over unimpeded. And love! praise be to the elderly for teaching the world about love. The youth speak of love while the elderly are silent. The elderly live love. Mouths are the curse of humanity. They make so much noise, but only muted action ever speaks truthfully. The youth are all ready to die for love, but the elderly want to live for it alone.
Mankind travels through life along the circumference of wisdom, viewing it from one side and then the other, but forever unable to reach the center. When we are young, we are blind to it, yet we live by its dictates. When we are old, we can see its face, but are not foolish enough to live it. Only when dying can we truly regret not having really lived.
Martin Vidal is the author of The Ambition Handbook: A Guide for Ambitious Persons