Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

On Things Permanent and Impermanent

by Jeff Polet

There’s an old saying that if you’re 20 years old and you’re a conservative you have no heart, and that if you’re 40 years old and not a conservative, you have no brain.

I suppose the saying might mean this: in our youth we have an itch for progress, because we are in the process of developing our capacities. Things are fresh and exciting. Remember when you were younger and your parents had a growth chart marked on the wall? Each birthday was anticipated because it brought with it greater opportunities and possibilities, and brought you one step closer to the peak of your powers.

Athletes reach their physical peak at the age of 26. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at age 21. Einstein had his ‘miracle year” at the age of 26. David Hume wrote his Treatise on Human Nature at 27. Goethe published The Sufferings of Young Werther and started Faust at the age of 25; Newton discovered calculus at 23; and at 22 Alexander Hamilton was Washington’s aide de campe. Don’t get me started on Mozart, although I’ll confess to taking some comfort in the fact that Kant wrote his First Critique when he was 63, as did Hobbes his Leviathan.

Young people embrace change because change for them means efflorescence and growth; older people fear change because for them it brings decay, diminution, and loss. Young people often lack the imagination to see that their elders once sat in their same seats, full of hope and possibilities and uncertainty and excitement. Life and experience chipped away at those things; the changes came, and they brought with them loss and heartbreak and missed opportunities, but also compensations. We grew in wisdom, our character deepened, we were both hardened and softened by suffering, we gained a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings when we became parents, and we developed greater appreciation and gratitude for our own parents in the process. Horizons are broadened by time, experience, and imagination; the young have plenty of the third but deficiencies in the first two. Wisdom appears most fully when it recognizes those deficiencies, and it’s in the nature of time’s broadening that it works only retrospectively.

“You can never step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, which is true not only because the river is always changing, but because we are as well. Perhaps this is what Kierkegaard meant when he corrected Heraclitus by claiming that you can never step in the same river once. All is flux; all is change. Or so it seems.

To resist change is as futile as Xerxes sending the Persian troops to beat the sea with whips for its failure to comply with his military needs. Our oft futile and always feeble efforts stop at the shore of the great, unchanging and seemingly unlimited seas of time, which in turn define our limits. “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!/10,000 fleets sweep over thee in vain,” Byron wrote. He continued:

Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee—
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters washed them power while they were free
And many a tyrant since: their shores obey
The stranger, slave, or savage; their decay
Has dried up realms to deserts: not so thou,
Unchangeable save to thy wild waves’ play—
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow— Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now

“The permanent things,” a usage Michigan’s Russell Kirk borrowed from T.S. Eliot, refer to those aspects of human life that are unchanging, perennial, and universal. Mariners in the past had tools that allowed them to navigate Byron’s boundless seas. They could set their path by the stars, using charts and compasses and sextants to keep them on the right course. We live now in an age where we are lost at sea and, our technologies having failed us, no longer know how either to find our way back nor to get to our appointed end. We are adrift in “a place of disaffection,” Eliot wrote, that provides us with neither light nor darkness but

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Whatever age we are personally, we confront this challenge of venturing out into the unknown, and as we get older we get closer to the greatest unknown. Thus Eliot reminded us:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

G.K. Chesterton began his work “Orthodoxy” by expressing his desire to write a story about an explorer who believed he had discovered a new island in the South Seas only to realize he had mistakenly landed on his place of origin. “What could be more delightful,” Chesterton wrote, “than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?”

Do the innovators and apologists for progress cut us loose from our moorings without giving us either a place to go or tools to get us there? Is the place they would have us land a “no-place” — literally a utopia — a fantasy of imagination but one not inhabitable by human beings? If so, we no longer have a home but neither do we have a destination, a problem testified to by the fact we no longer refer to our lives as “pilgrimages” but as “journeys.” Not knowing the craft of helmsmanship, we steer ourselves into constant trouble and we end with only moments of calm seas but days of tempestuous waves. For without the permanent things – a place to come from and a place to go, the acquisition of proper instruments and the skill to use them, and knowledge of the things that can guide us along our way – we disappear along time’s oceanic horizons, feeling ourselves as mere specks on the infinite waters. Which, Byron again:

The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

But perhaps I misspoke when I said that change brings with it only loss, for the losses weigh heavy on us and the compensations seem slight. Thus we need memory, the recollection that our pilgrimage is not only ours, and not ours alone. Many have gone before us, and many will come after us, and we will never be alone along the way, so long as we walk alongside other pilgrims. Eliot observed in his “middle way” of “twenty years largely wasted” that

what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

If Eliot is right, then conquering and exploring properly belong to old age and not to youth, and we live in a world that has everything backwards.

According to Jean Twenge in her book iGen, the older generation is largely responsible for the lack of resilience in the younger one because we have tried to create for them a risk-free world of no exploration or discovery. In one telling interview, a young woman tells Twenge “A relationship is impermanent, everything in life is impermanent, so if that’s taken away and then you can’t find another girlfriend or another boyfriend, then what are you going to do? You haven’t learned the skills to cope on your own, be happy on your own, so what are you going to do, are you just going to suffer through it until you find someone else who will take care of you?” So they retreat from all risk, all possibilities of loss, all the things that make us human and make life rich and textured. The young woman has shrewdly and unwittingly stumbled upon the central cause: the loss of any sense of permanence.

Russell Kirk liked to say there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. There remain, instead, the permanent things, and among these is the developing awareness that while perfection of the world is not achievable, making ourselves a little less imperfect is; that we see as far as we do because we stand on the shoulders of others; that we are bound to one another and across the generations in a compact of mutual obligation; that everything we attempt in life is accompanied by tragedy and irony, but no matter how bad things may seem cheerfulness will keep breaking in; that what we know is but a small clearing in the vast forests of the unknown, and even while we try to expand our clearing by hacking away at its perimeter, this hacking makes us even more aware that the woods around us are lovely, dark, and deep – and we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If being “distracted from distraction by distraction” makes us less able to comprehend ourselves and our world, how ought we approach those things in life that distract us most, such as our cell phones?
  2. What difference does it make if we see ourselves as being on a pilgrimage rather than a journey?
  3. If the essay argues, as it does in part, that the young ought to cultivate attitudes of appreciation and respect for their elders, what attitudes ought elders take toward the young? How does regret play into that?

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