McClay: “a human person is a historical being, in whom the past remains immanent in the present”


I learned a lot about aging from talking with my grandfather.  John Fea Sr. was an Italian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. He passed away a few years ago at the age of 103.

“The Evening of Life” is the theme of the Fall issue of The Hedgehog Review.  Wilfred McClay‘s piece on aging is definitely worth reading.  Here is a taste of “Being There“:

Imagine yourself as a young man, perhaps in late adolescence or early adulthood. In the course of events—perhaps sitting in your seat on an airplane—you meet a little old lady. At least that is how you unreflectively categorize her, both when you meet her and when you describe her later to your friends. Since you are (obviously) a bit callow, it doesn’t cross your mind to think that that characterization might be a bit slighting or callous. After all, you mean no harm. But even if your perception of her is kindly, it is also casually reductive. Someone else might have noticed that she is a lively conversationalist, and is impeccably dressed and coiffed, with perfectly manicured nails, but none of that registers with you. Instead, you mainly see her as someone standing at a certain remove from you, as a second-grader sees his teacher, across a continental divide of age, as having long ago arrived at that great gray stage of human life in which the imperatives of youth, the only imperatives you really understand, are as distant from her as the microchip is from the Middle Ages.

Needless to say, this little scenario is all going to look quite different to her. She undoubtedly doesn’t think of herself as a Little Old Lady, if for no other reason than that no one wants to be reduced to a stereotype. Perhaps she doesn’t like to be reminded of her age, doesn’t feel that she is all that “old,” or, for that matter, isn’t little, and doesn’t feel much like a lady at the moment. Whatever the specific reason, she objects above all to the one-dimensional reductionism.

Now instead imagine yourself as a male contemporary of that same woman, someone she had known years before, perhaps in another place, but had rarely or never seen in the intervening years. Let’s say that you two were college friends, and you bump into one another at a reunion event. You sit down to have a cup of coffee and talk. And you proceed not only to talk, running through the usual updates of marriage, children, careers, relocations, medical problems, etc., but to look carefully at one another as you do. What are you looking for? What do you see? What impressions flow into your mind in silent counterpoint to the words coming out of your mouth?

Of course, you look for and see many things. But first of all, you search for the face of the person you used to know, as it appears in the face of the person who now sits before you. And once that face of the younger person emerges in a way visible to you, you cannot unsee it; you cannot see her today in any other way, without also incorporating that younger person, without that almost ghostly presence inhering in the sight. You come into possession of a kind of dual vision. You look in her face and see not only the face she has now but also the face she had then, even if it only peeks out in fleeting moments, or shows itself in certain tics and mannerisms that have endured. You experience her as a life in motion.

You might have a variety of reactions to the changes that have occurred over the years—the human body being what it is, the changes will generally look like wear and tear, at best—but what can’t be helped is that, in some sense, both people are alive to you at that moment. The person you used to know is still alive somewhere in there. You can detect that spark, and hear that distant melody. You can see what the young man is incapable of seeing: that this is no mere little old lady. In the house of her soul are many mansions; as the widowed governess Anna tells the young lovers in The King and I, she knows “how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down the street in a trance.” Not that she is ever likely to do that again. But in some sense, she never ceased to be what she was, in the process of becoming what she is now.

That is the epiphany, then. It is the understanding, not only as an abstract idea but as a living reality, that a human person is a historical being, in whom the past remains immanent in the present, and whom the wear and tear of time enhances rather than diminishes. We rarely are presented with exactly the right circumstances to gain this insight, although occasions such as reunions are perfect places for them to occur; and of course you can get an intimation of it from family photo albums and videos in which you glimpse what your now-wizened grandparents looked like when they were twentysomethings and newly married.

Read the entire piece here.

Part of this reminds me of Richard Rodriguez’s 2003 commencement address at Kenyon College and his phrase “life is a whole.”