“There’s always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand;
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes, so he can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage is well, and he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell,
And he’ll go to his grave as an angry old man.”
While my wife and I were vacationing in Germany this past spring, I decided not to shave for two weeks. I fully intended to return to my clean-shaven habit when we returned, but she suggested I keep the facial growth, saying she thought I looked good with it.
Two months have now passed, and I still have the beard. I trim it every week, but otherwise, it presents a whole new look (and image) for me. It is mostly gray, and it definitely makes me look older than I did when I was clean shaven. A few friends, while acknowledging that fact, also say it makes me look more distinguished, which, when you’re a law professor, probably isn’t a terribly bad thing.
Looking at yourself in the mirror is a fairly common practice, I suppose. At least it is for me. Not that I’ve ever done so with a sense of great pride or satisfaction. In fact, I’ve never been particularly enamored of my face. Let’s just say, I’ve always seen flaws in it, even if, in my youth, I might have passed for handsome in a dark ethnic kind of way.
But over the years, you get used to that face in the mirror. It becomes part of your identity, of how you relate to yourself, as well as to the rest of the world. And if you’re a guy, and you suddenly change the way that face looks, you are making a conscious decision to adjust the way you relate to yourself, and to how the rest of the world might relate to you as well.
Okay, so maybe I’m making too much of a relatively simple issue, but hang with me; I’m going somewhere with this. It’s all about this aging thing, and how I’m feeling about it.
I suppose it happens to all of us at some point if we live long enough—the realization that there is going to be an end, and that each stage of the aging of our bodies brings us closer to it. I dwell on the irony of death as the end point of each life more than I probably should, but it is the ultimate imponderable, isn’t it?
We’re born; we thrive for a while, and then we slowly begin to deteriorate, both in mind and body, until we are no more. Now that simplistic existential description may be offensive to some, but it’s pretty much the way I see it. My father-in-law, a true salt-of-the-earth type who never asked much of anything from anyone, said it more bluntly: “We live until we die.”
Ah, but there’s more to it, some of you will want to tell me. There’s what we do with those years when we are vital and possessed of all our faculties. Life should be purposeful; everyone should feel productive in their work and joyful in their ability to fully experience all that life has to offer.
Sure. I get that. And I think I’ve been fairly purposeful and productive and joyful, and continue to be, for all of my soon-to-be 69 years of life. But I’m also becoming increasingly aware of that irony I mentioned: that there will be an end; moreover there will be a diminution of capacity leading up to that end.
Yes, that’s the thought that sticks with me and that links to my decision to keep my “distinguished but older” look.
I recall a conversation I had with a group of friends maybe forty years ago. I wasn’t yet 30 years old, and the discussion was focused on the idealism of youth, something I was, at that point in my life, still very much in touch with. When my friends pressed me on my insistence that idealism was noble, I told them, by way of explaining myself, that my favorite musical was “Peter Pan.” Several of them guffawed at me, as if to suggest I was slightly out of touch, if not unhinged.
At some point in the forty years since that conversation, I lost my idealism. Or, maybe a better way to say it would be that life as it really is finally dispossessed me of it.
And so, I no longer hope to see a world at peace or to believe that love conquers all. Instead, I have that smaller sense of equanimity that comes from realizing that I’m blessed with what life has given me and that little by little over the years that remain to me, I will have more reason not to be idealistic, more reasons to feel older, if not quite so distinguished.
The beard, as I become more accustomed to it, is an expression of that new realization, and in that sense, I think it reflects the identity I’ve come to possess for myself. This is what I think I’m saying about myself: I’m an older guy who takes care of himself but who isn’t afraid to face the reality of the stage of life he is in.
Sure, I could choose to look younger, and I’m certainly not about to stop the productive and purposeful things I engage in to bring me joy and a sense of fulfillment. But even the most beautiful rose ultimately loses its petals and withers away.
I don’t want to be Peter Pan anymore. I’ve grown up and gotten old—older and more distinguished; yeah, that’s the ticket. It isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. In fact, as the joke goes, it beats the alternative.
And, hopefully, if I keep working on it, I’ll avoid going to the grave as an angry old man.