I’ve lived almost two-thirds of a century now, so I have passed many of the birthdays that supposedly mark a passage and/or cause the birthday person distress. 18, 21, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60 . . . you know what I’m talking about. It has never been a big deal for me—as Jeanne always says, “It’s just a number.” But I’m 65 today . . . and that particular number has caught my attention. “65!!” I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks. “That’s really f—king old!” I’m okay though—it really is just a number. I’ll just keep telling myself that.
Jeanne and I are celebrating my birthday with at least a couple of events. First, we both are scheduled to get our first Moderna Covid-19 vaccination at 11:30 today (pictures will be forthcoming). Second, a new establishment called “The Industrious Spirit Company” has opened up shop a mile or so from our house in a former industrial part of town full of empty warehouses just waiting for someone to show up and start making bourbon, gin, and vodka. One of our many Rhode Island microbreweries, “Revival,” has just moved across the street from “Industrious Spirits.” Both places have outdoor areas with heaters for those willing to have adult beverages outdoors on an early March weekend in New England. Just the thing for my birthday.
Our culture tends to assume that with increased years comes increased wisdom, but as a Chinese philosopher once pointed out, some people just get older with the passage of time, and the wisdom thing never happens. With that in mind, here are a few things that, on my sixty-fifth birthday, I think I know to be true.
1. Some things never change: A Facebook friend reported the results of her online Myers-Briggs personality test not long ago, which prompted me to spend several minutes with forty-five questions to see if I have changed over time. I haven’t.
You are an INFJ! Sensitive, empathic, and insightful, you care deeply about people, wanting to accommodate them on the one hand, and having strong visions that you desperately want to turn into reality on the other . . . Others are likely to describe you as tolerant, courteous, and appreciative, but also a bit remote and dreamy . . .
Blah, blah, blah. In truth, “a bit remote and dreamy” is not how others are likely to describe me negatively—“stuck up, superior, stand-offish, and aloof” sounds more like it, all of which are generated largely by my 91% I (introversion). Such is the life of an INFJ. I have taken the Myers-Briggs test at least a half dozen times in the past four decades, always with the same results. So be it; as Jeanne (an ENFP) says, “it is what it is.” Deal with it. On my tombstone will be carved “He was a hardcore INFJ. We tried to deal with it.”
2. I know more than I can put into words: For someone who teaches philosophy for a living, this one has taken a while to inhabit and embrace. Words, after all, are the tools of the philosopher’s trade, tools we use to construct logical arguments, to refute other arguments that we don’t like, and to reflect our fundamentally rational commitments. The older I get, however, the more I resonate with Iris Murdoch’s observation that
To be a human being is to know more than one can prove, to conceive of a reality which goes “beyond the facts” in familiar and natural ways.
What I know, but cannot prove, often is what is most important to me, important not because I can make a rational case for it but because it lies deeper than reason at the core of who I am. This tends to be very frustrating to people who comment on my blog, academic colleagues, and students who expect me to embody the stereotype of the rational, intellect-worshiping philosopher. In response I frequently quote a favorite passage from Shakespeare, Hamlet’s response to his friend Horatio’s refusal to believe that Hamlet has seen the ghost of his dead father.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.
3. I know less than I think I do: I’ve been aware of this for a long time, but I thought I’d put it out there because it, as the previous truth, runs counter to stereotype. We all know more than we can put into words and know less than we think we do—but academics, people with degrees, and people who are confident about themselves are not supposed to admit it. Fuck that, I say. Becoming comfortable in one’s own skin, which is hopefully something that becomes more and more possible as one gets older, involves admitting one’s finitude, mortality, imperfections, lack of certainty about just about everything—and loving it.
4. Attitude matters: A couple of years ago, Jeanne took me to see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at our downtown performing arts center. It was wonderful; the hundreds of people in attendance mostly looked like Jeanne and me—aging hippie refugees from the sixties. Carole King’s “Tapestry” was one of the first albums I ever purchased; her music was a cherished part of the soundtrack of my youth.
The show ends with Carole King sitting at a grand piano during a 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, her first performance in front of a live audience. She sings “Beautiful,” which is one of my King favorites.
You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile in your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better, you’re gonna find, yes you will
That you’re beautiful, as you feel
As the Stoics tell us, although we cannot control what the world sends us, we can control how we will process and respond to what the world sends us. How I approach the world is a choice, and I choose—when I have my wits about me sufficiently to remember—life and love. I choose not to be afraid. I embrace Iris Murdoch’s definition of freedom:
To be free is something like this: to exist sanely without fear and to perceive what is real.
As I’ve learned over the past several years to embrace an evolving faith rather than to struggle against it, I’ve found it more possible to find the divine in the ordinary, in the pleasures of daily life in the classroom (even when those present have masks on and are socially distanced and others are on Zoom), with Jeanne, with our remaining dachshund Winnie, and waiting for next season when I can again scream at the top of my lungs with 13,000-plus fans at a basketball game. And I realize that I’m finding the divine more and more often because I’ve become more and more comfortable as an incarnated being. The central claim of my faith is that the primary way the divine gets into the world is—despite our mistakes, flaws, imperfections, and downright evil—in human form. The olgder I get, the more I accept that when it comes to getting the divine into the world, I’m it. And so are you. It goes with the territory.
I leave you with this image from last year that Facebook reminded me of a couple of days ago. A Facebook friend took a few lines from one of my blog posts and placed it over a picture of the beautiful Ruane Center for the Humanities on the campus where I have happily taught for the past 27 years. I had forgotten writing the lines; upon reading them I thought “that’s really good.” Not bad for 65.