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Who called these the golden years?

1/13/2014

Youth is wasted on the young.

Youth is wasted on the young.

The guy who said that was, we may assume, old.

Kids envy elders until the first time a parent insists we learn how to mow lawns.

"But I want to playyyy," we'd whine. "You're too old for that now," we were told. "You need to learn some responsibility." That term, soon to be dreaded as the bane of adolescence, referred to developing a "work ethic," but we were still too young to understand that concept.

Those grade-school kids sure are lucky, we realized as high-schoolers. They don't have to stay up late plagiarizing essays from the Internet or cramming for math tests.

But the perspectives of youth are fickle, having had fewer years to become assimilated as dogma.

Urged by old people (who had forgotten classroom tedium and terror soon after enrolling in the School of Hard Knocks), some of us who decided to "get an education" eventually came to dread a phenomenon called "final exams."

In college, I experienced real apprehension about organic chemistry tests. I probably had studied some, though I can't specifically recall doing so. It always seemed like a crap shoot. The instructor must've had a lot of really bad days: As a chemist/nerd, he possessed no socially acceptable outlets for his frustration, except for the displaced vengeance he could wreak on the only people in the world over whom he was not powerless, by devising a test that would show them all he was in some respect their superior.

There wasn't really anything we could do about it. Well, we could've studied more, but let's be reasonable here. Adverse outcomes were beyond our control, pretty much.

It made my brain hurt. A small source of pain, to be sure, but still.

By spring semester's end, I eagerly anticipated the brainless, repetitive demands of a summer job. No scholarly commitments, no marathon sessions with a text full of hieroglyphics, no critical exams.

Shortly after summer began, the pendulum began to swing back again. Shoulders ached from digging post-holes, wrists on fire from tossing bales. Hot, exhausted; dirt in every pore. How I longed for the dorm room, cool and serene, where I could curl up in an overstuffed, if tattered, chair, and languorously peruse pages of wise observations on the reactive properties of carbon bonds.

Neither the trials of the classroom, nor the rigors of the feedlot, met my expectations for the secure, confident and autonomous life of adults, even once I was old enough to buy 3.2 beer.

In medical school, basic science students envied the clinical students; clinical medicine is a heckuva lot more interesting than memorizing the origins and insertions of muscle groups.

Clinical students envied the interns, who actually had a diploma with an MD degree.

The interns envied the residents, and the residents envied the attendings.

Will we ever get to stop starting over? Will we ever be old enough?

Well, yes. I'm definitely old enough now. I still prefer aging to its alternative, but the distinction is growing less distinct.

Life doesn't begin at conception, but death does.

We are constructed to self-destruct. Each cell in our bodies contains genetic imperatives to perform suicide. Sooner or later, the tissues began to malfunction. Some of these malfunctions are minor, but some are devastating. They accumulate until some critical mass of under-performing organs craps out entirely, and the individual dies.

Prior to that point, we just suffer, and all the wisdom acquired during years of experience cannot make it otherwise.

It's cruel.

Or at least, it would be if this whole process were the deliberate invention of some omnipotent creature who just as easily could have been nicer to us without sacrificing our well-being.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it all makes perfect sense. Our "mission" is to reproduce our genes and perpetuate our species. Nature is indifferent to pain, a fact amply demonstrated every second of every day. Humans are not nature's favorite children. Once we have passed the age of reproduction, we are no longer biologically "useful," except as teachers and babysitters.

Tough. We do what we can for ourselves and each other, but nature won't devote any special effort to our well-being, and we shouldn't be surprised. It makes no more sense to thank gods or nature when we feel OK, than it does to blame them when we're miserable.

It's not fair. We cope because we have to. Humor helps. So do NSAIDs.

What we can do is remember. Viewed through the eyes of a child, everything is new and fascinating; age should not cloud our vision metaphorically, though it often does literally.

When I play with my grandkids, I try to do so with the sense of incongruity and joy that seemed so natural when I was their age, not as the Old One who always demands they do something differently, or stop doing it at all.

No matter how old we become, there's a child in each of us -- a child whose joints never swell and ache, whose heart never fails, whose engagement with life stays as crisp and meaningful as our deteriorating bodies will allow.

Life is a symphony. Each of us gets one magnum opus. When it's over, it should leave a sense of harmony and beauty among those in the audience. Write your score lovingly.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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