Littell's Living Age/Volume 131/Issue 1696/On the Shelf

From The Liberal Review.


Men often pray that they may live to what they call a good old age. Yet it is to be feared that a great portion of humanity never appears to so little advantage as it does in the evening of life. Nor is this to be wondered at. People's dispositions depend largely upon the state of their constitution. If a man is strong and robust, there is small credit due to him for being cheery and sweet-tempered. On the other hand, if a man is troubled with many aches and pains there is little blame owing to him if he is discontented and querulous. Now, there can be no doubt that a large number of old people are discontented and querulous, and it is equally clear that their failings have their origin in the frailties of their flesh and blood rather than any serious defect in their mental composition. At the same time it must also be said that in addition to their physical weaknesses and the contemplation of their failing powers old people have much to aggravate them. In the first place, the young are apt to display no consideration for their feelings. Many young men assume that old men have had their day and that it is time for them to make way for those who are pressing on their heels. If the old men can be thrust aside, well and good; if they decline to be removed from their places before death takes them, the chances are that they are regarded as nuisances, and their transmutation is spoken of as a thing to be desired. Indeed, it often happens that they are shown that it is difficult to tolerate their presence, and that the same would not be tolerated if it were not for the fact that blood is thicker than water. At many a fireside does the old grandfather sit, a sort of chilling influence on the gay striplings who have life before them, and can barely be patient with the poor old man who has left life behind him. Who cares to talk with him? Who sympathizes with his hopes and aspirations? Hopes and aspirations, forsooth! What business has he with such things? At any rate, it is supposed that he ought not to have any which pertain immediately to this world, though, after all, this world, wicked though it is, is the world in which the loves and joys of most of us are wrapped up. Whatever property he possesses it is felt that he is in duty bound to give to some one else, and very few of those who have constituted themselves his protégés feel any compunction in attempting to wheedle whatever they can from him. He has the sense to perceive all this. He has the discrimination to detect that he is laughed at, sneered at, regarded as a being of the past, put upon one side as if he were nothing, petted as if he were a child or a person of weak intellect, and in other ways, possibly unintentionally, mortified and insulted. Can it be wondered at that he often makes peevish attempts to resent the treatment which he receives; that he is induced to take misanthropical views of life and his condition? Verily a man must have a wonderful mental and physical constitution if he can remain cheerful, hearty, frank, and good-natured during the period in which he awaits the writing of finis to the chapter of his life. Some manage to do this, of course; but they are brave souls, who are largely favored by exceptional circumstances.

It must be remembered that age naturally expects to receive a certain amount of deference from youth. We are sorry to have to say that it does not always even command respect. A young man is inclined to be particularly resentful when he sees a would-be rival in the shape of an old man, and he is apt to indicate his resentment in unpleasant ways. He seems unable to see that he ought gracefully to allow his elders to take the initiative except when his own abilities are of an undeniably superior order. Indeed, he does not hesitate to regard that weight which is occasionally permitted to attach to age as a personal affront to himself, as a grievance which he is bound to fight against with all the bitterness of his nature. It may be that age is disposed to monopolize certain privileges and to presume upon its rights, but every excuse can be made for this by reasonable minds. It would be strange if an old man did not display irritation when he sees youngsters whose heads he has patted when they have been children, whom he has, perhaps, nursed upon his knee, acting flippantly and arrogantly towards him. It would be still more singular if he failed to feel dismayed when he perceives one, whom he has considered barely worth his notice, suddenly rushing to the front and making the running at a tremendous pace. He could, perhaps, bear with equanimity being beaten by a person who has been buffeted about by time like he himself has, but the case is almost intolerable when he suffers defeat and has the bread taken out of his mouth by an individual who is just entering upon the serious business of life. Old men are displaced daily by youthful rivals. At any time you may hear their murmurs and perceive their unhappy condition. They have not the philosophy to accept their discomfiture as one which has been decreed by fate, and they have not the strength to grasp the prizes which lie before them and are secured by bolder hands than theirs. So they fall back, in their trouble, upon the stale device of abusing youth, of expressing contempt for youth's works, and railing against society for its patronage and toleration of youngsters. As they are being put upon the shelf they derive such solace as they can from pouring into compassionate ears the story of their wrongs; a proceeding which often excites as much contempt as pity.

Youth may learn one lesson from all this. It should see that it must make its position before it gets old if it wishes to retain respect. It should perceive that age to be happy needs an established status, and that if it has not laurels to repose upon it will meet with scanty consideration. The despised senility of dotage is simply the apotheosis of a life of failure. It will ever be so; and, however much lovers of the traditional past may bewail the fact, age will not command respect on account of its white hairs and tottering limbs. Indeed, we fear that white hairs and tottering limbs, when they are all that an old man has to rely upon, will mostly excite contempt and give rise to an opinion that he is cumbering the earth too long.