New Year, Old You

New Year, Old You January 5, 2015

Many of us already have bound ourselves to resolutions this year.  After fitness the most popular ones include resolutions to learn something. Pick up a new language, Rosetta Stone ads implore.  The Teaching Company touts Latin 101 as its top-rated course. Resolutions to better the body may have obvious appeal (or not: this husk is fading away) but those fixed on improving minds require some puzzling over.

In the late decades of his life William Bradford, long governor of the Separatist colony in Massachusetts, tried to teach himself Hebrew. On the blank pages preceding his manuscript of the history of that famous settlement, Of Plimouth Plantation (here from full text at Project Gutenberg), Bradford explains his motivation:

Though I am  growne  aged, yet I have had a long-
ing desire, to see with  my own eyes, something of
that  most ancient language,  and  holy  tongue,
in which  the Law, and  oracles  of  God  were
write; and in which God, and angels, spake to
the holy patriarks, of old time; and what
names were  given  to things,  from the
creation…to see how
the words, and  phrases
lye in  the holy  texte;
and to dicerne some-
what of the  same
for  my  owne

Bradford formatted this explanation in a triangular shape on the page, like an hourglass running down, expressing the urgency of the project by the felt limits on time.  It wasn’t as though he had nothing to do but copy out Hebrew phrases.  Governing the Pilgrims in the rocky wilds of New England, his vocation was more active than contemplative.  As Cotton Mather put it, Bradford was “a person for study as well as action.”  But ardor rather than resolution seems to be animating Bradford.  He longs to learn in order to see something he cannot, to perceive things more aptly. The goal is not to make himself new, but by dint of the ancient tongue to come nearer to the liveliness of creation when it was new, devotion not in an old-timey spirit but accessing the fervor of faith at the first.

I have made no resolutions this year.  I am in my mid-forties and the new year makes me wonder: what should I learn?  The world overflows with things I should know but don’t. What, given that slipping hourglass, should I make peace with never learning?

So much of the education pressed on the young is oriented to future utility.  Learn this now so you can do that later.  You learn your ABCs so you can to learn to read; you gather qualifications for college admission, opportunities, and better jobs.  For some, getting a job means that learning fizzles when goad of future requirement falls away.  For others in mid-life education comes again, and again job-oriented, when retraining is required by shifts in the economy. If you are all grown up and not in school and do not need new skills for a job, why should you continue to learn?

That’s mostly a rhetorical question.  One benefit of academic work is that continued learning actually is part of the job.  And many people find “lifelong learning” attractive. That seems like a good thing, although as with education at earlier stages, process can get prioritized too much-–learning to keep the mind exercised, to divert or to hold dementia at bay, to keep busy.
Lots of literature explains why mature people, midway through the journey of life, press on this path.  Bradford’s short explanation might here suffice.  Because adult life, whether spent in stimulating work or soul-crushing drudgery, amidst childrearing or emptied nest, should still leave us with a longing desire to see: what is, what is lost, what revelation can reveal, what names can be given to the created world.  The new year does not make a new you.  Nevertheless you–though grown aged–may find more “contente,” even if the self-transformation we are coached to want right now finally is beyond our grasp or recognition.


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