“The will is free, but who can account for his own acts and opinions without invoking influences and accidents?”— Jacques Barzun, “Toward a Fateful Serenity”
One of the benefits of an hour-long commute, really, the only benefit, is the time to think, to free associate, to sum up. In two weeks I will slip into that mysterious age of 60, an age which I have, until now, reserved exclusively for the old, perhaps the infirm, most certainly those far enough from shore that the next wave only lifts them gently in passing before cresting up ahead with a roar. We attach significance to these arbitrary numbers—12, 18, 21, 30, the BIG 50, 60, 65. What do they mean?
The King James Bible (Psalms 90: 7) gives us one of the most memorable phrasings of our limits with its customary sturdy poeticism: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
The line begins modestly, ‘days of our years,’ adds the common limit with ‘threescore years and ten’, offers up the exception with ‘fourscore years’ but undercuts the implicit surprise with the burden of ‘labour and sorrow.” Finally, the brutal efficiency of ‘it is soon cut off,’ is turned in mid-air as we strain against the tethers that bind us to the earth, and ‘we fly away.’ There’s nothing of Dylan Thomas’ plea to his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It turns out that we were always meant to leave this earth, but the image is almost one of indifference—‘we fly away’ without a backward glance.
It is not to be thought that I am at this threshold as yet. I’ve been fending off AARP for years, and both my grandparents lived past 90 with a good measure of strength and plenty of cheerfulness. But, as I say, it marks a moment that we invest with meaning. We should not shrug off these moments, for they will not always announce themselves.
In 2000 Jacques Barzun, one of this epoch’s greatest cultural historians, published his massive work, From Dawn to Decadence, a New York Times bestseller and the capstone to 75 years and over 30 books of a remarkable career. Two years later The Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections from His Works was published, and the first essay, “Toward a Fateful Serenity,” speaks autobiographically of the fault lines and accidents of history that shaped him early on. As a child of wealth, privilege, and genteel upbringing he lived through the chaos of the First World War in Paris, Grenoble, and the south of France. He remembers how temperament, tragedy, and trauma shaped him into the ‘cheerful pessimist’ who, in his eighties, could live serenely despite a culture that exalts selfishness. One of the things that history taught him was ‘the lost faculty of admiration.’ “The past,” he said, “is full of men and women (and children too) whose lives and deeds are worthy of honor, wonder, and gratitude, which I take to be the components of admiration.”
And I, too, find myself surrounded by those I can admire, argue with, be inspired by, and learn from—from Aristotle to Zola, Annie Lenox to U2, A Bug’s Life to Unforgiven. Barzun recommends reciprocity, a reckoning of the debt we owe to those who have lighted our way. Thus, in gratitude to just some of those whose music has raised me up, here are lines that gave me words for the unwritten scripts I have lived out through the years.
“When you’re down and troubled, and you need a helping hand . . . .” — James Taylor
“Your time has come to shine/All your dreams are on their way . . . .” — Paul Simon
“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive . . . .” — Bruce Springsteen
“So let us not talk falsely now/The hour is getting late . . . .” — Bob Dylan
“Shower the people you love with love/Show them the way that you feel . . . .” — James Taylor
“In your eyes, the light the heat/In your eyes/I am complete . . . .” — Peter Gabriel
“You may say that I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one . . . . John Lennon
“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/Pilgrim through this barren land . . . .” — William Williams
“You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/Oh my shame/You know I believe it . . . .” — U2
“The river’s wide, we’ll swim across/We’re starting up a brand new day . . . .” — Sting
“Leave it behind/You got to leave it behind . . . .” — U2
and of course. . . .
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me/When I’m sixty-four?” — The Beatles