(Note: The word asterisked above is not ‘duck’. Nobody is less of a duck than they used to be when they’re over 40, except perhaps ducks, because they don’t live to that sort of age. By definition, if you’re a duck that’s over 40, you’re likely to be dead, and thus you are indeed less of a duck than you used to be. 100% less of one.)
In his recent speech to students graduating from Syracuse University, the writer George Saunders said many wise, funny, beautifully written things. But two points particularly leapt out at me as I read it (and ah, if I’d only been a young person hearing it!). Firstly, Saunders essential point, the speech’s main message, which was this:
“Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”
He goes on to note that to do just that – to be kind – “is hard”. And that brings me (or rather, him) to the second point:
“One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.”
As I read those words (overlooking such glaring spelling errors as ‘favor’ and ‘defense’), I nodded. Because Saunders had expressed something which I had noticed in myself.
Namely: that I am less of a dick than I used to be.
I was having dinner last week with a friend who’s a year younger than me; and she spoke about the time her dad went through something similar to what my dad is experiencing right now. My friend was 25 when it happened and admitted to me: “I couldn’t cope with it back then”. The implication being that she could cope with it – or at least have a better understanding of it, and a different response to it – now. Now that she’s older.
I told her I felt exactly the same way about my response to my father’s illness.
Because as I sit here back at my childhood home caring for my dad, like the lead in a Zach Braff movie whose soundtrack is not hipster indie bands but BBC Midlands Today, I realise I am, simply put, a better person than I used to be in my 20s, or even my 30s. George Saunders is right: I find it easier to not only show but to genuinely feel kindness; easier to be caring and more tolerant; easier to put myself second or even third (not fourth, though. I have my limits). Could I have coped with my father’s illness in my 20s? Possibly. But it would have been just that – coping, and probably barely so – rather than genuinely dealing with it. I would undoubtedly have found it harder to be open and loving and kind (and just as importantly: brutally honest); and I probably would have been getting blind drunk far more often.
I’m not saying that I was a total dick (or a total drunk) when I was in my 20s and 30s – nor that I am some sort of saint now. But I know that I have a better idea of what’s important now, and different priorities. Better priorities, I hope. I value kindness and sweetness in others more than I’ve ever done, for example; plus their ability to mix a good martini. This would have been unheard of in my 20s, largely because I didn’t drink martinis. Back then, I would have admired someone’s ability to mix a good tape (still a quality I would admire, to be fair, not least because of their initiative at getting their hands on a cassette tape).
Not so long ago on Brainy Radio (Radio 4), I heard a man talking about his autism. He described how, when he was 17, his stepfather died and he didn’t understand why his mother had to see her late husband’s body before they buried him. He said that this was a sign of his autism – but as I listened to his story (and I don’t mean to deny his take on it in any way; this was simply mine), I thought to myself: ‘That’s not autism, that’s youth’.
When I was 17, my best friend’s mother died. And I’m not proud – indeed, I’m ashamed – of how I dealt with this awful event. Because I didn’t deal with it at all. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Because I was young.
But now, to paraphrase Maya Angelou: I would know better, so I would do better. And one of the many gifts/consolations (delete according to your world view) of getting older is that we hopefully learn what is better. Both for others and ourselves.
Are there plenty of people who are over 40 and still dicks? Of course. Vladimir Putin. Rush Limbaugh. A whole host of others, many of them EDL members. But does anyone become more of a dick than they used to be when they’re over 40? I very much doubt it.
As for becoming more of a duck than you used to be: also very improbable. Just look at the ugly duckling, for example. He turned into a swan.