January 1st, 2016. Chapel Hill, NC.
A year is a strange thing. In the turning of the calendar, endless repetition brings change: 2015, like every year before it, has gone away. 2016, like every year before it, will bring us a new world. Foucault wrote that “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning…The game is worthwhile,” he declared, “insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.” For him, change and uncertainty were not only inevitable, but desirable for their own sake – pillars of the life well-lived. I can’t decide if this sentiment is beautiful or cynical; change can be destructive, and sometimes the good is destroyed along with the bad. I have Foucault’s quotation posted on the wall above my writing desk, and it appears to me alternately as a warning, rebuke, and encouragement, depending on my mood. Certainly, his words contain a grain of truth. We don’t know where we’re headed, and we don’t know how we’ll get there or how long it might take. Even death and taxes are less definite than the adage would have it. Taxes change with situation and regime, and people still don’t seem to have agreed on what “death” really entails, or whether or not we should welcome it. We tend to express our ambivalence on this last point whenever a conversation strays into “morbid” territory; as soon as death enters the domain of every-day discussion, we censor it, banishing its memory with shrugs and half-joking apologies. Unsure how to respond to the fact of our own mortality, we’ve entered into an unspoken agreement that until we have to face it, we’d better not.
This winter break, I’ve spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My father’s parents came for a visit from their home in Virginia, and my mother’s mother (we call her “Oma” – that’s German for grandma) lives near us in Charlotte; she’s a fixture at all our family gatherings. The elderly on both sides of the family love to share their memories. As 2015 came to a close, my Oma told me about her childhood in World War II Germany – how her family’s homes were destroyed, how her male relatives were rounded up and shot by Soviet troops, how she and the other surviving women walked across Germany in wintertime to arrive as refugees in Berlin, where they were forced to steal their food and sleep on warehouse floors among hundreds of other migrants. Every one of the women in my Oma’s raggedy assembly caught tuberculosis; her grandmother died of it, along with her grandmother’s maidservant, who was a dear friend of the family. My paternal grandma told me the story of how she met my grandfather – how handsome he looked at his fraternity’s mixer at their small Montana college; how he asked her on a “Coke date” to “shoot the breeze”; how she fell in love with him on equal terms despite other girls’ jealous warnings that he was older than she was, less obscure than she was, more desirable than she was. “Be careful of what you say to people,” she told me, slowly cutting her steak. “The littlest thing you say to someone could really ruin them.” I agreed.
Small words can have big effects when they’re heard by the right – or wrong – ears. That’s one reason I listen closely to my grandparents’ stories, even the ones I’ve heard a thousand times over. The act of laying out one’s life for examination and reflection is a compelling expression of humanity’s search for meaning – especially when that life has been long and is nearing its completion. In this act are the roots of wisdom, which can only be acquired patiently, with experience and age. By listening to the elderly, we act as both witnesses and participants in that process. As Foucault reminds us, at the beginning of our lives we cannot, and must not, know where or who we’ll be at the end. If we could, our journey would be over before it began. But at the end of our lives and throughout our lives, we can, by looking backwards with careful attention, come to a level of understanding. Understanding of what, I don’t yet know – the truth of it all, I hope. I do know, however, that we should start on this great undertaking, that of drawing meaning from experience, right now, while we’re young. That way, we’ll avoid finding ourselves at life’s end having missed it all, missed the point. We gain knowledge by listening to those who know more than we do, and by practicing and improving upon their methods of observation. To gain wisdom, we should listen to those who have lived more than we have, practicing and adapting their methods of reflection as we search for direction in our own lives. This year, I intend to listen more, so that by the end of 2016 I will have become not only someone else, but someone better – more thoughtful, steadier, and less selfish – than the person I am today.