I try to read. Really, I do. The problem is that most of what I read is about business leadership, venture capital, or politics. Of the three, I prefer venture capital for its attempt at objective reality. Numbers can, in fact, lie, but the lies are often readily discernible. Also, as I grow older and (I like to think) more discriminating, I have less patience for people trying to sell me something, whether the latest eight steps to excellence or a new deal, green or otherwise.
Lately, I’ve been more self-conscious of my lack of real reading, so when I came across a reference to Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (HarperCollins, 1937), I had to buy it. Leave it to me to get excited about a book of reflections on life by a Chinese social satirist from 84 years ago, but the description on the cover cinched it for me: “The Classic Bestseller That Introduced Millions to the Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone.”
What, leaving things undone is not only an art but a noble one? I would have walked barefoot over broken glass to find out how. On a side note, part of this has to do with my training in liturgical studies and having read Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (1929) in graduate school. Guardini talks about the liturgy as having no point at all other than worship, just as the most important things in life have no purpose (e.g., love). On a side note to the side note, I have a penchant for older books from spending time in my grandmother’s basement, which was stacked with old books from floor to ceiling, but I’ll save that for another post.
Already, by page nine I had turned up a truffle. Yutang says: “Man’s sense of the tragedy of life comes from his sensitive perception of the tragedy of a departing spring, and a delicate tenderness toward life comes from a tenderness toward the withered blossoms that bloomed yesterday. First the sadness and sense of defeat, then the awakening and the laughter of the old-rogue philosopher.”
First the sadness and sense of defeat, then the awakening and the laughter of the old-rogue philosopher.
This should come as great news to anyone on the far side of 60, since so much of what we hear about aging has to do with either staving it off, or coping with the inevitable decline as if we were on a black diamond ski slope rushing toward a cliff. This attitude gives rise to transhumanism on one hand, whose adherents would have us believe that we can live forever through technology (remember DuPont’s “Better Living through Chemistry”?) and, on the other, to people who want to end it all before life turns into a Debra Winger movie.
But Yutang points out a better way, which is to understand that life is not just about a departing spring and the loss of smooth skin or hair but the unveiling of another kind of beauty in which impulsiveness gives way to tenderness and truth. For the great advantage of age is its ability to lead us directly to truth without concern for ego or the suppleness of the body. It brings us closer to the person we really are with the added benefit of being aware of who we are, which is the fabled blind spot of youth.
You might say that Yutang’s withered blossoms are not so much about death as they are about birth and the recognition that we have been misjudging ageing all this time. Ageing is not about ending what once was and never will be again but entering something new. It is not about loss but the still myriad possibilities of life if we allow ourselves to see them. To believe in them.
Of course, the body does not last just as the blossom withers and crumbles. But the tenderness Yutang identifies results from awakening to the wider and deeper forms of life all around us. There should be no sorrow in that, since it is not a tragedy. How could it be? It means being attuned to the spoken and unspoken, the visible and invisible, the present and absent. We should all be so blessed.
We should all be old-rogue philosophers.
Image credits: feature by Matthew Henry from Burst. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”