The unfolding of life does more than fray our bodies with entropy — it softens our spirit, blunting the edge of vanity and broadening the aperture of beauty, so that we become both more ourselves and more unselved, awake to the felicitous interdependence of the world. And yet the selves we have been — young and foolish, hungry for the wrong things, hopeful for the right but winged by hope into hubris — are elemental building blocks of who we become, unsheddable like the hydrogen and helium that made the universe. Joan Didion knew this when she observed that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Jane Ellen Harrison knew it when, in her superb meditation on the art of growing older, she cautioned that “you cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no ‘you’ except your life — lived.”
That transmutation and integration is what poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) takes up with uncommon soulfulness in his long poem “Youth and Age,” penned in his early forties, shortly after he completed The Prophet.
In his youth, Gibran reflects, he felt doomed to insignificance, dwarfed by a universe that seemed immense and remote. But as he matured, he learned to live with “the great aloneness which knows not what is far and what is near, nor what is small nor great” — to inhabit that elemental aloneness with a sense of boundless belonging to the universe and every other aloneness in it.
In a sentiment consonant with the aging Walt Whitman’s reckoning with what makes life worth living, he traces his path:
In my youth the heart of dawn was in my heart, and the songs of April were in my ears.
But my soul was sad unto death, and I knew not why. Even unto this day I know not why I was sad.
But now, though I am with eventide, my heart is still veiling dawn,
And though I am with autumn, my ears still echo the songs of spring.
But my sadness has turned into awe, and I stand in the presence of life and life’s daily miracles.
In a lovely metaphor rooted in the evolutionary history of life, he contrasts the spirit of youth to that of our later years:
The difference between my youth which was my spring, and these forty years, and they are my autumn, is the very difference that exists between flower and fruit.
A flower is forever swayed with the wind and knows not why and wherefore.
But the fruit overladen with them honey of summer, knows that it is one of life’s home-comings, as a poet when his song is sung knows sweet content,
Though life has been bitter upon his lips.
With an eye to the restlessness of youth, Gibran echoes his earlier reflections on befriending time as he contemplates what might be the supreme reward of growing older — our widening capacity for patience, for the spaciousness that meets life on its own terms and becomes one with the unfolding mystery:
In my youth I longed for the unknown, and for the unknown I am still longing.
But in the days of my youth longing embraced necessity that knows naught of patience.
Today I long not less, but my longing is friendly with patience, and even waiting.
And I know that all this desire that moves within me is one of those laws that turns universes around one another in quiet ecstasy, in swift passion which your eyes deem stillness, and your mind a mystery.
In a poignant reminder that our aversive reactions reveal not the nature of the things we abhor but the nature of our blinders and the limits of our understanding, he adds:
In my youth I loved beauty and abhorred ugliness, for beauty was to me a world separated from all other worlds.
But now that the gracious years have lifted the veil of picking-and-choosing from over my eyes, I know that all I have deemed ugly in what I see and hear, is but a blinder upon my eyes, and wool in my ears;
And that our senses, like our neighbors, hate what they do not understand.
A century before science illuminated the poetics of wintering trees as a lens on renewal, Gibran writes:
In my youth, of all seasons I hated winter, for I said in my aloneness, “Winter is a thief who robs the earth of her sun-woven garment, and suffers her to stand naked in the wind.”
But now I know that in winter there is re-birth and renewal, and that the wind tears the old raiment to cloak her with a new raiment woven by the spring.
Touching on a concept known in Eastern spiritual traditions as non-identification — the ability to inhabit our vaster nature beyond transient circumstances and conditions — he writes:
In my youth I was but the slave of the high tide and the ebb tide of the sea, and the prisoner of half moons and full moons.
Today I stand at this shore and I rise not nor do I go down.
He ends the poem by looking back on the sad alienation of his youth as the rudiment of his fruition, indispensable and sacred:
Yes, in my youth I was a thing, sad and yielding, and all the seasons played with me and laughed in their hearts.
And life took a fancy to me and kissed my young lips, and slapped my cheeks.
Today I play with the seasons. And I steal a kiss from life’s lips ere she kisses my lips.
And I even hold her hands playfully that she may not strike my cheek.
In my youth I was sad indeed, and all things seemed dark and distant.
Today, all is radiant and near, and for this I would live my youth and the pain of my youth, again and yet again.
Complement with Simone de Beauvoir on the art of growing older and how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, then revisit Gibran’s luminous wisdom on the courage to know yourself, the building blocks of friendship, how to raise children, how to weather the uncertainties of love, and the secret to a lasting relationship.