Story behind the Passage
Yesterday, I talked to a soldier and at some point while we were into stays abroad, he said the following sentence: “Certain experiences change you forever.” I knew what he was talking about and he knew that I knew. It is because I have experienced it. Now I keep wondering if this really is the case. And I wonder a lot about age in this context. So many people experience such dramatic events. Life is full of them. Not every life, but some are really packed. If you believe there is purpose in all this, that will help you. Still, you have to go through these experiences. And if we add up all this, I believe that we should be seeing a world full of wise men and women who have learned so much from life and who are able to make the best of their experience by adding value to society.
But this is not the case.
I am not talking about politicians that much today. I just mean: everybody. As I grew up and even now that I am almost “middle-aged” as they probably call this stage, I have always thought that growing older is a remarkable thing because you learn more, you grow, and you come closer to reaching your maximum potential — if anything like this exists. Now, also inspired by another conversation this week, I am wondering if this is really true. Maybe the correlation between age and personal growth is not at all that self-evident. I mean, I am not naïve. I am not saying that everybody who has reached a certain age can be said to have the kind of life experience I am talking about here. Still, maybe there is even less of this correlation than I had thought.
If that is true, the “suppressing and forgetting memories” reflex must be much stronger than I had imagined. Exactly at which point an experience becomes memory, I cannot tell. I could think about it but that would take us too far at this point. What I basically mean is that the lack of learning from decisive experiences which, ideally, find expression in changed behavior, must be caused by the fact that either the experience or the learning get somehow forgotten, which is why outside observers do not see them anymore. Or, this is also an option, other experiences put like a blanket over what was there before and instead of the ability to easily revive what was there, it simply becomes locked up and covered under a deep rocky surface.
Thoughts like these only come up, of course, by means of comparison. Humans always compare, even though you can teach yourself not to. But even then, if you just think about yourself, your age, and your level of experiences, you will end up wondering where exactly you are standing right now. Are you “done” in a way? Someone this week said that all people want to “develop” themselves. I doubt it. Or maybe I am too harsh and I simply do not see the development in others because I am using my measurement. But this, again, indicates that I am comparing and violating the personal space of others by implicitly expecting or even wanting them to change in some way.
That is not a good idea.
All this thinking made me remember Charles Dickens. When I think Dickens, I think of these 19th-century industrial towns, poverty, and children wih black cole-covered faces walking in dirty streets to the mill. This is basically what Hard Times is about. And as I think of Dickens’ main characters, I see these faces of young boys in my inner eyes, with a dirty hat on their heads, worn out clothes and this mixture or wisdom and sadness in their eyes which is so deep and moving that you cannot even cry when looking at them. And now I wonder if any of these children has ever forgotten about their lives in the mills, if they made it out there. We still have these children around the world. Some become “popular” later on because they fight for human rights. Still, I want to be skeptical today on purpose: Is it possible that even they will forget what they learned in hard times about life?
“These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned.” This is one of these typical Dickensian introductory passages describing the scence which the reader is invited to envisage. In fact, it is not particular to Dickens, of course. U.S.writers would do the same thing later, especially in the era of realim. In any case, what I want to get at is that the kind of experience that shapes you most, I think, is poverty in relation with violence. The two go together hand in hand, of course, and both are existential. If you have nothing to eat, you will die. If you steel because you have nothing to eat and you get beaten up or shot for it — you die. Of course, dying is always the ultimate physical harm you can experience but this does not matter. Since human beings have the tendency to simplify their thinking, thinking in extremes helps us make sense of ideas. So, this is why, povery and violence are crucial experiences.
I do not remember if many children in the town are described like I described them above. But my point is a different one: I am asking myself how so many people in our contemporary society, just two generations after the immediate war generation can be so disattached to their old poor past? Is Maslow’s theory really so dominant in such a short period of time in human history? And how can people who gew up poor now only care about driving a Porsche and wearing a Rolex? These are rhetorical questions exactly because of the things I am writing above. Since money and violence are so connected, they shape you and somehow this often means: You lean towards the other extreme.
How all this connects to age, I do not know. I always thought that age makes you appreciate life more but maybe this is just one of these many ideas I have. Maybe this is just a rational mindset but not some natural process that kicks in. Or maybe age does not matter at all. Maybe the fact that we have a president Biden now who is close to 80 does not say anything about his ability. Maybe he is even less capable than Obama at age 48? It probably depends on a simple decision you make early, and I do believe in decisions as the drivers of life: Either you decide to think about yourself and about life or you simply decide against this. It is not about ability or intellect is what I am saying, maybe it is simply a decision that no hard times really change.
Actually, I have come to cherish the hard times most.
1) What was the hardest time in your life? How did things become better?
2) How important is age with respect to life experience?
3) Which other books/works by Dickens do you know?