If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Monday 27 August 2012
Read gnomica 1-100 here!
The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (8 March 1841 – 6 Mar 1935)
At my stage of life that is a thought comforting if certainly not – pace Mr. Holmes — applicable in the case of every old man (or woman). As somebody once said, just because you have worked at the same job for twenty years is no guarantee that you have twenty years of experience at that job: it might just turn out to be one year of experience repeated twenty times.
But this epigraph might nonetheless be a useful springboard for a dive into the regulatory pool of life. We all grow up internalizing certain rules of conduct and behavioral repertoires designed to help us regulate our lives and our interactions vis-à-vis the world we inhabit, and many of these rules are useful. But some may well be pernicious, as when we internalize the life-regulating prejudices of family and friends (as in, for example, “All X are y”, or “Never yield an inch”, or “That kind of person is never to be trusted”, and so forth and so on).
I would personally be happier with an overarching maxim along these lines that goes something like this: “Be a situational chameleon!” And this maxim is just short-hand for the desirability that one be flexible – steer clear of absolutes, including the notion that a young man might not know when usefully to bend the rules and that only an old man would.
For Holmes’ comment suggests, at least to me, that a younger person will follow unthinkingly whatever injunctions have been internalized, but that (only) an older man has the requisite elasticity of mind and temperament to make such local accommodations with useful generalizations as circumstances may require. If that is what he had in mind, then I have to take exception.
Since he lived a long life — through a starkly transformational period of American (and human) history — one might be inclined to impute unassailable wisdom to the man (the ancient topos of “the wise old man”). But if you were to think of all the people that you yourself know, and then think again not only about the young ones among them who are remarkably grounded and open to fine-tuning their ways as needed, but also about the old ones you know who are inappropriately rigid and uncompromising in their ways, then you would, I believe, have to take the great justice’s remark with more than a grain of salt.
My thinking is that, yes, there is certainly merit to the kind of compendious wisdom that adages, gnomes, maxims, sayings can package for us, but it’s not a bad idea to think twice about what at first blush may seem like a striking articulation of an unassailable truth that, upon closer inspection, may not be quite so unassailable after all.
Short-hand thinking, however realized, may, for all its seductive attraction and often genuine validity, be both incomplete and sadly misleading.