Teaching high school these days, I am often reminded of Maximus from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, imploring the crowd, “Are you not entertained?” I scan my students’ bored, simultaneously hopeful faces, and I want to tell them: as you turn older, your lives will become both more boring, but paradoxically more pleasurable; that’s if you’re lucky!
Let me explain. Revisiting my twenties, I see a decade of far more adventurous fancies than now inspire me, of impulses that at age thirty have given way to memory. Throughout the former decade, I lived in various states and even a foreign country, worked a myriad of jobs, dated women with a slew of different personalities, lived and collaborated with different groups of roommates, tried on divergent political identities. As a consequence of these experiences, whatever curiosity in me generated them, then expired itself, such that now the mere recounting of the experiences is enough.
It is like Lois Lowry’s The Giver, in which the titular character is burdened with the keeping of memories for his entire village. Burdened, but also liberated: I want to tell my students, if you are lucky, then you will so fully live your dreams that even before your youth is extinguished, and while your body remains virile, you will become as an old man, carrying and tapping a cane metaphorically if not literally. The pleasure of holding and reconstructing memories is immense.
Many times these days, I sit and simply think on my life, fleshing out and letting whither the travails, the excursions of days past. In my mind, glorious hopes, wonderings, and sufferings display themselves, like the arcs of a character who learns only through courage and hardship. Of course, from where I dwell in my quiet life, this character feels like someone entirely separate from myself, but he also feels deeply personal, the subject of immediate compassion in my chest. I am my own protagonist in a novel I reread time and again, merely for the joy of the language.
Too, often in these seated reveries I think of nothing at all. The joy of silence is overwhelming for me. Through all the doing of my twenties and the decades before that, I have arrived at a place where non-doing is possible, and not only possible but effortless, as though remembering a skill drilled out of me or forgotten upon entering this life. In the faint stirrings of crickets as night dawns, the click of an automatic light as it awakens, the hum of my breath, the squeak of my chair as it rocks, I find peace.
I want to tell my students: for every adult in your life who bores you with their silence, with their kindness, with their unmoving magnetism, intuit one who has lived as you, who now smiles on your journey as perhaps its own form of memory. In you, the adult may see further unspoolings of themselves, of their own hidden—or perhaps explored—desires, protestations, and investigations; an inner voice may call out to them: I struggled with that, I wondered about that, I wanted to do that too. In you, the adult may find completion of the part of themselves that now tends to, rather than exudes the journey, that now acts as its steward, whether internally or externally, with respect to past or present. And that is the font of the strange, itself unexciting smile with which some adults meet silence.