My good friend Bob, observed one day that the first sign of aging is a “hardening of the attitudes.”
The phrase has been around for decades but it was new to me. It resonated.
There have been a few too many times lately when I say something about a current issue that is patently ridiculous. A disturbing pattern is emerging. It speaks volumes about a certitude that is too loud and ill-informed, a resoluteness that is unnecessary and an infallibility that is too noisily and abashedly defensive. Hardening of the attitudes indeed.
At it’s core is a been-there-done-that belief that I have gathered enough wisdom and my brain is full. It also means that my brain is closed to new information, new ideas, new points of view. There is no dialogue with certitude, no negotiation with resoluteness and no modifications to infallibility.
In an effort to fight this hardening of the attitudes, I am reading things I have never read before. I am discovering writers who are brilliant, exposing me to ideas and points of view that have never entered my conscious realm. It has a bit of a randomness to it all but is nevertheless refreshing and humbling.
I came across a small book by Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, in a discount bin at Munro’s Books in Victoria last weekend. I’ve never read Virginia Woolf so it was worth a try (especially, I thought, at the discount price).
It is an extended essay resulting from lectures Woolf gave to two women’s colleges affiliated with Cambridge University in 1928. I won’t try to summarize it, it would not do her justice. I can only say she is brilliant in laying out her case for gender equality, surpassing any modern feminist writings in her logic, her calm reasoning and her eloquence.
I wish I had read it when I was 20, or 30, or 40, or 50… or anytime in between. I am convinced it would have changed me and my view of the world.
The fact that there are writers like Woolf, and books like A Room of One’s Own that have eluded me at this stage of my intellectual and moral development suggests that maybe I don’t know everything there is to know, that my certitude is misplaced, that my resoluteness is fragile and my sense of infallibility is tragically flawed.
Fortunately, in a bit of serendipity, I have found a possible way out. There is no cure for stupid but there is an opportunity to push back on the hardening of the attitudes.
There may even be other benefits to discarding my certitude.
Einstein is quoted as saying; “Once you stop learning, you start dying”.
My solution to all this is that I am going back to school.
It’s too long a story to describe in detail but, last spring, I managed to talk my way into a study tour of southern Spain run by a small program at Simon Fraser University, the Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) Program. It involved a mix of students who were taking the course for credit, alumnae who were meeting up with old colleagues and a few strays like myself who had wandered in off the street.
It is a Master’s degree program, part-time and geared for adults. The curriculum for the two mandatory courses is a survey of the classics around the two themes of reason and passion. Then I must take more course options or a thesis option etc. to qualify for a degree.
The program is run out of the downtown Harbour Centre campus, I can walk to classes. The place hums and has the feel of a downtown university. The first two mandatory courses are held one night a week; they consist of a dinner and a three hour session, a discussion led by the professor.
The reading list is diverse and intimidating; there is not a single book on it that I have read. I like the idea of reading and discussing a serious work of literature, that seems to be my favoured learning style these days.
If my Spanish sojourn is any indication, I am going to spend time with some truly special people. There are only 20 students admitted to the course every year so the cohort will be small. The people I have met so far are all interesting, curious and come from diverse backgrounds; people outside my normal and narrow social contact groups.
Why, at my age go back to school?
It seems I have a choice. I can remain aloof in my certitude, comfortable in my rut, and unassailable in my resoluteness and my infallibility – and as Einstein says, I can start dying. You see us everywhere, huddled in coffee shops, muttering to ourselves over the latest edition of the daily newspaper, looking and feeling left out and left behind. Like we’ve been weaned on a pickle – sour and un-nurtured.
I can also lift the veil a bit, without getting too far out of my comfort zone and rummage around in the remainders piles of bookstores – quality bookstores mind you – in my attempt to expand my horizons. But I will choose to do it only on my terms. I will acknowledge my failings only in the quiet of my apartment and the comfort of my reading chair. Being the intrepid explorer I fancy myself to be, I will continue to attend the theatre, visit museums and galleries and go to the opera occasionally to prove to myself that I still don’t like opera.
Or I can admit to a monumental lack of knowledge and awareness and set myself onto the stormy seas of learning. I love this quote by Sir Francis Drake; the problem is I have and irrational fear of water and have tipped many floatable vessels over at inopportune times. On the other hand, even drowning in new ideas is preferable to the other two options.
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas,
where storms will show your mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.”