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Ch. 8: Presumptuous Age

The ineffable presumption of aged persons is an affliction too long endured. Much is told us of the becoming modesty of youth. Is no modesty becoming a period of life when experience has given some measure to merit?

Why should youth be modest? Youth believes it can do all things, and has had no proof to the contrary. But age,—age which has tried many times and been met by failure; age, which has learned its limitation by repeated blows, and become content with hard-worn compromise,—why should age be so proud?

In itself it is no distinction, being but the common lot of man. Those who do not attain to it are by general consent of superior merit. "Whom the gods love die young."

Age is not desired and striven for,—not won by honourable effort. It comes gradually upon us all, falling like rain upon the just and the unjust. Taken simply in itself, it proves no more than that the aged individual, if a man, has had sufficient strength and ingenuity to keep himself alive; and, if a woman, that she has been sufficiently pleasing and well-behaved to be kept alive by others.

In very early times, when the world was young and life more exciting and precarious than now, perhaps the above qualities were a sufficient distinction. The constitution which survived the rigours of a crude and uncertain diet and of an undiluted climate was a thing to be proud of; and the visible proof that one had survived one's enemies did indicate some superiority.

But in a civilisation which takes special care of the infirm,—where green young cripples grow to a ripe old age, and a bed-ridden pauper may outlive many muscular labourers,—mere prolongation of existence is no self-evident proof of either power or wisdom. Of two men born in the same year, the more valuable man, doing more valuable work, is quite as likely to die as an innocuous, futile, low-grade person, paddling feebly with the tide. Of two women, one may smilingly repeat herself by the dozen, and drift sweetly on from amiable juvenility to as amiable senility; while another, working strenuously and effectively, dies in her earnest youth or middle age.

Survival is no longer a fair test of value. The wisdom of the ancients is not the standard of our time. We do not think that a previous century knows more than ours, but rather less; and, if Methuselah were with us yet,—and retained his faculties,—he would be too much confused between the things he used to believe and what he was learning now to be a valuable authority. When learning was but accumulated tradition, the old had an advantage over the young, and improved it. Now that learning is discovery, the young have an advantage over the old.

If wisdom consisted merely in the accumulation of facts, the long-time observer would assuredly have more of them than the new-comer. But the wisdom that consists in a free and unbiassed judgment—a new perception of the relation of things—comes better from a fresher brain. This is not to say that age may not coexist with superiority, but that age, per se, is not superiority.

There are many aged persons in the work-house who are quite visibly inferior to many young persons in the House of Commons. This suggests a painful antithesis which is better omitted. Granting the origin of this arrogance of the aged to have had some basis in primitive time, it is easy to see how it has descended to us by the same principle that maintains the fag system.

Humanity has always its overlapping generations; and the child who is crushed by the incontrovertible statement, "I am older than you are!" waits to recoup himself on children yet to be. In his subordinate position in youth he has no chance to escape from this injustice or to retaliate; and he strikes a balance with fate by assuming the same superiority over the new-comer. It is probable that we should never outgrow the assumption until we have a generation of children taught to respect conduct for its merits, not for simple duration, holding a wise, strong, good person, however young, to be superior to an ignorant or vicious one, however old. When the sense of justice and the sense of logic of the child are not outraged in youth, we shall find more modesty as well as more wisdom in old age.

It is always interesting to see our psychic development following the laws of nature, like any other growth. Under the law of inertia the human mind, starting under a given concept, continues to enlarge in that direction, unless arrested or diverted in some other force. So this conception of age as essential superiority, naturally enough begun, has been followed to strange and injurious extremes. And under the law of conservation of energy—following the line of least resistance—the aged naturally encroached upon the young, who were able to make no resistance whatever.

The respect and care for aged persons, which is so distinguishing a mark of advanced civilisation, is due to two things: first, the prolonged serviceability of parents; and, second, the social relation which allows of usefulness to even the very old. In an early savage tribe the elderly parent is of no special value to the newly matured young, and the tribal service has more use for juvenile warriors than for the ancient ones: wherefore the old folk are of small account, and do not meet much encouragement to prolonged living. But with us, though the child is grown quite sufficiently to hunt and fight and reproduce his kind, he is not yet properly equipped for the social service. He needs more years yet of parental assistance while he accumulates knowledge in his profession or skill in his trade.

Therefore, parentage is a longer and more elaborate operation with us than with lower races, animal or human, and the parent consequently more appreciated. This position is fondly taken advantage of by the designing aged, oft-times with a pious belief in their righteous ground which is most convincing.

Because the human parent is of far more service to the young than earlier parents, therefore our elders calmly assume that it is the duty of the young to provide for and serve them,—not only to render them natural assistance when real incapacity comes, but to alter the course of their young and useful lives to suit the wishes of the old. Among poor and degraded classes we see children early set to work for the parents instead of parents working for the children,—a position as unnatural as for a hen to eat eggs. Life is not a short circle, a patent self-feeder. The business of the hen is to hatch the egg, and of the egg to grow to another and different hen,—not to turn round and sacrificially nourish the previous fowl.

The duty of the parent is a deep-seated, natural law. Without the parent's care of the child, no race, no life. The duty of the child to the parent was largely invented by parents, from motives of natural self-interest, and has been so long sanctioned and practised that we look on without a shudder and see a healthy middle-aged mother calmly swallowing the life of her growing daughter. A girl is twenty-one. She has been properly reared by her mother, whom we will suppose to be a widow. Being twenty-one, the girl is old enough to begin to live her own life, and naturally wishes to. I do not speak of marrying,—that is generally allowed,—but of so studying and working as to develope a wide, useful life of her own in case she does not marry.

"Not so," says her mother. "Your duty is to stay with me. I need you."

Now the mother is not bed-ridden. She is, we will say, an able-bodied woman of forty-five or fifty. She could easily occupy herself in one of several trades; but, being in possession of a house and a tiny income, she "does not have to work." She prefers to live in that house, on that income, and have her daughter live with her. The daughter prefers to go to New York, and study music or art or dressmaking, whatever she is fit for. But here is her dear mother claiming her presence at home as a duty; and she gives it. She does her duty, living there with her mother in the capacity of—of what? In no capacity at all. Fancy a young man living at home in the capacity of a "son," with no better occupation than dusting the parlour and arranging flowers! In course of time the mother dies. The daughter has lost her position as "a daughter," and has no other place in life. She has never been allowed to form part of the living organism of society, and remains a withered offshoot, weak and fruitless.

These cases are common enough. But consider from another point of view the serene presumption of the elder woman. Because she had done—so far—her duty by the child that was, she now claims a continuous hold on the grown woman and a return for her services.

In still earlier days this claim was made even more strenuously. The child awe-fully addressed the father as "author of my being," and was supposed to "owe" him everything. The child does not owe the parent. Parental duty is not a loan. It is the never-ending gift of nature,—an unbroken, outpouring river of love and labour from the earliest beginnings of life. The child, while a child, has also some duty to the parent; but even there it is reflex, and based in last analysis on the child's advantage.

Meanwhile it is a poor parent who cannot win the affection and command the respect of the young creature growing up so near, so that a beautiful relation shall be established between them for the rest of life. This love and honest admiration, this affectionate friendliness, and all the ties of long association would naturally prompt the child to desire the society of the parent, and, of course, to provide for illness and old age; but that is a very different position from the one taken by an able-bodied, middle-aged parent demanding the surrender of a young life.

Parentage is not a profession with a sort of mutual insurance return to it. The claim that humanity is born saddled with this retroactive obligation requires more convincing proof than has yet been offered.

An obligation we all have, young and old,—and to this the child should be trained,—the vast and endless service of humanity, to which our lives are pledged without exception. Seeing the parent devout in this honourable discharge of duty,—realising that his own training is with a view to that greater service when he is grown,—the child would go onward in life with the parent, not backward to him.

But we have not yet forgotten the habits and traditions of the patriarchate. We demand from the young respect because we are older, not because we deserve it. Respect is a thing which is extorted willy-nilly by those who deserve it, and which cannot be given at will. If a parent loses his temper and talks foolishly, how can a child respect this weakness? To demand respectful treatment shows one cannot command it; and, if it is not commanded, it cannot be had. Any false assumption is a block to progress. So long as the aged expect to be looked up to on account of the length of time in which they have not died, so long will they ignore those habits of life which should insure reverence and love at any age.

People ought to be living with wise forethought and circumspection, in order that they may be respected when old,—not carelessly lulled with the comforting belief that, no matter how foolish they are, age will bring dignity.

So, too, if parents did not so fatuously demand respect merely because they are parents, but would see to it that they deserve and win respect by such visible power and wisdom as the child must bow to, we might look for a much quicker advance in these desirable qualities. The power of learning things does not cease at maturity. Many a great mind has gone on to extreme old age, open, eager, steadily adding to its store of light and power. Such keep the freshness and the modesty of youth. Far more numerous are the little minds which imagine that years are equivalent to wisdom, and, because they are grown up, decline to learn further. Yet these, far more than the wise men, sit back complacent on their age, and talk with finality of "my experience"!

Experience is not merely keeping alive. Experience involves things happening and things done. Many a young man of to-day has done more and felt more than a peaceful, stationary nonagenarian of yesterday's rural life. That very brashness and self-assumption of hot youth, which brings so complacent and superior a smile to the cheek of age, would not be so prominent but for previous suppression and contemptuous treatment. A lofty and supercilious age makes a rash and incautious youth; but youth, trained to early freedom and its rich and instructive punishments, would grow to an agreeable age, modest with much wisdom, tender and considerate with long power.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman