Growing old, growing wise

It’s not a healthy thing to be a writer. Spending years hunched over a keyboard wrecks your back, neck, arms and whatever is left of your social life.  Books can take years to write and even then may fail to finish.

Readers may love them, or critics, but rarely both. There are no paid holidays. Retirement is never an option. On the other hand, there are some glorious advantages. You can go to work before you have had a shower and can stay long afterwards. You can spend your whole life learning more – truly a version of bliss.  And on those rare public occasions when you do venture out, you meet some tremendous people, not superficially but at real depth. Most of them are readers. And you treasure every one of them. But writers festivals also give writers a great chance, often their only chance, to meet and talk with other writers, finding out how weird each other’s writing habits really are, how incurable our obsessions, what has nearly broken our writer’s heart, and how to remain hopeful despite the odds.

A few years ago, in the New South Wales city of Grafton, I attended one of the best festivals ever.  Its focus was philosophy, religion and science – already a brilliant concept – and it was held in the beautiful, embracing Grafton Anglican cathedral. For a few days we writers led an idyllic existence. Thinking mattered. The cathedral became the centre of everything, much as a cathedral might have done in any lively town in medieval times. One of the writers there was the celebrated English priest and theologian, John Polkinghorne, and the reason I am telling this story at all is that he was enjoying a second and rather different illustrious career.  He had started out as an acclaimed physicist, teaching mathematical physics at Cambridge for years and publishing extensively. Then, in his forties, he moved from professor to student and re-trained as a priest.

What is remarkable here is not just that this story nicely challenges the lazy idea that a brilliant scientist could not also believe in God – or that it is possible to take a big step down (from professor to student) and still go up. What the story also demonstrates is that while the strengths of the mind change as we age, there can be genuine gains as well as losses. John Polkinghorne was clear that in his forties his best work as a physicist was behind him.  This was not a reason to move on but presumably it made change less difficult. Mathematics and physics, he claimed, will always be best achieved by the young and brilliant rather than the old and wise. Philosophy and theology (and most serious forms of writing), on the other hand, demand experience, patience, depth of thinking and a broad view – all attributes that can improve with age. Interestingly, this same view of maths and science as a younger person’s game is offered in David Leavitt’s recent novel, The Indian Clerk, which is far more about maths, minds and aging than it is about India or clerks.

Most of us will never be brilliant or wise, no matter how young we now are or how old we become.  Nevertheless, wisdom, and the humanity that comes with wisdom, remain far more accessible than brilliance. The same qualities that John Polkinghorne identified as assets for a world-class theologian can also work for the rest of us. We can grow more and not less curious. We can learn from our mistakes without being crushed by them. We can appreciate what other people have to teach us. We can discover for ourselves that money matters much less than happiness (excellent news for writers). We can newly value kindness, beauty and humour. And we can certainly learn and practise the infinite arts of reflection.

First published in Good Weekend, 2008.  Please do not reprint without permission.