Some of our undergraduates show remarkable philosophical leaning when they are allowed to discuss life. The discussion sometimes involves such meaningful questions, directed to the teacher like me: “When do you think an academic will go out of use? Can a person remain spirited forever? Isn’t there the possibility of one’s sudden disappearance because more vibrant persons come to displace/replace?”
These questions must make a high-spirited person hold his breath for some time to envision his own future, with a feeling of slight pinch to his current usability. He should rather start with this thesis: “When I degenerate, I will disappear. To exist I must make things happen the way I want, otherwise I must learn the tricks of scooping butter with a crooked finger.” Well, it is tricky to try to find the number of such thinkers. But I assume there are many under our noses. To mention some universal symptoms of atrophying is my purpose here.
I think the first striking symptom is the reluctance to being receptive. This is when a person begins to set limits to learning and teaching. This is when he develops a sustained sense of fullness and saturation to the extent of intolerance towards productive criticism, and displeasure at the emergence of competent young successors. The second symptom is the fear of failure and bitterness. One’s intellectual erosion begins with the urge to avoid challenges when one has accumulated absurd experiences so much into believing that the world conspires against good people and life itself is deceptive. But one who fears challenges will hardly teach others the remedies against hardships. And one who always falls probably fails to tell others how to rise permanently. How can you expect to learn the skills of swimming from someone who is pathetically drowning himself?
Perhaps the most remarkable symptom of erosion comes with the feeling of surrender when there still is a chance to confront for a good cause. I believe each learned person should develop the quality of leadership with minimum sense of positive dominance over ignorance. Someone has rightly said, “When my father stopped shouting at me, he lost his world” meaning that a powerful, competent hand is always welcome in guiding a productive individual. Let alone sharing personal experiences, when a more matured generation begins to fear or lose control over less matured generation even in necessary cases, the channels for transmitting established socio-cultural values will gradually evaporate. Each generation should develop as much the power of dominance and guidance as the readiness for reception and expansion of knowledge and values.
The old and reasonable practically do not avoid being sociable and sharing experiences. If they do, they will only contribute to backwardness or possible stagnation. If you avoid sharing on your part, you will help promote such stagnation. Hence the maxim, ‘hear from the old,’ which as much signifies the value of experiences as emphasizes the need to value the experienced. One who has lived an individualistic life or been deprived of being with empathetic old relatives during the most receiving phase of life would finally ponder, “I wish I could relive my elders’ lives in a new context. If only I had had a mature hand behind. If only I had ever asked the seniors how hard it was to live their times.” However, life becomes more meaningful if you decide to make yourself useful when old, mature and experienced. The usefulness does not lie in expecting people to ask your guidance, but rather in being frank to indicate and help stop their deviation in ignorance.
People once venerated might go out of use when they begin to show signs of resignation from the mainstream. Appearance and visibility are not the matter of age but of intellectual energy. Neither do these have anything to do with physical presence but with leaving a legacy. Those who resign from the desire to become heritage allow others to lose sight of them. Visibility remains so long as others see you in terms of social presence and achievements.
An intellectual invites his own decline when he only revels in the past achievements but does not add any at present while competitors have already achieved newer heights. Successful people are usually narcissistic to the extent of gradual exclusion from the majority. But they can save themselves from fading out by transferring their achievements to upcoming generation of competitors. If human beings in general had the rigidity of keeping all their skills and subsequent achievements to themselves, and if they were unable to learn these from others, all of us would still be living primitively.
The power to command respect is an important quality to check early atrophying. The respect should come with being able to become a convergence point for the majority in leadership and knowledge. I believe a leader or a knowledgeable person has to be useful in the local level, among his own kins in the first place. Some competent people are out of use for their craze for telescopic usability, which means the ambition for a higher level, probably international, exposure without sufficient commitment to their lived surroundings.
Finally, I would exemplify three kinds of people who would rise in momentary limelight, but gradually fade away. The first type plants a tree, works hard till it grows and bears fruits, but finally, reveling on the fruits and gentle breeze atop, becomes too lazy to pluck weeds and shun insects. He rather expects someone to attend the tree merely for the sake of the shade and wind-blown fruits. This person will be either engulfed by the rapidly growing weeds, or be starved when parasites and predators snatch the fruits away.
Someone recently told me of a second type in an interesting metaphor about the relationship between the legs and the chest. He said, “The legs move and hold the body and help do wonders, but the chest receives the medal.” I think, this hints at the Shakespearean sense of “bubble reputation” that someone in a leadership enjoys till the subordinates agree to work hard for him. When the legs choose not to move, perhaps because the chest cannot sustain the glory of the medals or aims to climb too high to notice the pains below, the bubbles begin to burst. The chest will begin to pant in helplessness. The end will be painful.
A third type presents a somehow oxymoronic appearance. He boasts of having got very wide eyes after having ‘borne a thousand blows of life’, but the vision is so clear ahead as to miss seeing the filth under his feet. The filth ultimately travels up to his kitchen, bedroom and worship. This happens repeatedly. He is busy cleaning the filth indoors, and ultimately becomes invisible.
So, the undergraduates’ queries bother me. So far as I live surrounded by a crowd, the crowd that pays to hear and read from me and expects me to repay with satisfactory answers to their numerous confusions and challenges, I will have no rest and no retirement. I only fear disuse. I fear being dumped into an oblivious corner amid the crowd.
I would end my ruminations on intellectual disuse by rephrasing one favorite anecdote I read online sometime during my early days at KU. I often use it to begin my classes in each new session.
An old lady and a young man happened to compete for a promotion to a university’s permanent position. The lady, who had spent years teaching at the university, was somehow sure that she was going to beat the young man, who had been there two years only. But she lost; the young man was selected for the position.
Wounded because she was denied this last chance before retirement, she went to complain to the President: “It’s unfair, sir. I’ve taught for twenty years, but you’ve denied me promotion for the young lad who hasn’t been here more than a couple of years. I can’t simply take it as natural. What’s that boy done, after all?”
The President was in the best of his wit. He simply said, “I understand what you feel, Madam. But it’s not how many years that really counted, but how many achievements. From what the selection board knew, and as the reality also is, Madam, you’ve only taught one year for twenty times. That’s made all the difference.”
[From Midlife Montage]