ON THOUGHTS AT FIFTY
Stevenson, it will be remembered, once assigned his birthday to a little girl—or was it a boy?—of his acquaintance. The child was fond of birthdays, while he had reached a time of life when they had ceased to have any interest for him. Most of us, if we live long enough, experience that indifference. The birthday emotion vanishes with the toys that awaken it. I remember when life was a journey from one birthday to another, the tedium of which was only relieved by such agreeable incidents as Christmas, Easter, and the school holidays. But for many years I have stumbled up against my birthday, as it were, with a shock of surprise, have given it a nod of recognition as one might greet an ancient acquaintance with whom one has lost sympathy, and have passed on without a further thought about the occasion.
But to-day it is different. One cannot pass over one’s fiftieth birthday without feeling that an event has happened. Fifty! Why, the Psalmist’s limit is only seventy. Fifty from seventy. An easy sum, but what an impressive answer! Twenty years, and they the years of the sere, the yellow leaf. Only twenty more times to hear the cuckoo calling over the valley and see the dark beech woods bursting into tender green. I look back twenty years, and it seems only a span. And yet how remote fifty seemed in those days! It was so remote as to be hardly worth thinking about. To be fifty was to be among the old fellows, to be on the shelf, to have become an antiquity.
And now here am I at fifty, and so far from feeling like an antiquity, I feel as much of a young fellow as at any time of my life. I had feared that when middle age overtook me I should feel middle-aged and full of sad longings for the old toys and the old pleasures. How would life be tolerable when cricket, for example, had ceased to play an important part in it? Never again to have the ecstasy of a drive along “the carpet” to the boundary or, with a flash of the arm, snapping an opponent in the slips. What a dreary desolation life must be, stripped of those joys! And on the contrary I find that the spirit of youth is no more dependent on cricket than it is on the taste for lollipops. It consists in the contented acceptance of the things that are possible to us. Do not suppose, young fellow, that you are any younger than I am because you can jump five feet eight and I have ceased to want to jump at all. The feeling of youth is something much deeper and more enduring than the ability to jump five feet eight. It may be as vigorous at eighty as it is at eighteen. It is only its manner of expression which is changed. Holmes never admitted that he had grown old. “I am eighty-three young to-day,” he would say. And Johnson, with his old age and his infirmities, still insisted that he was “a young fellow”—as, indeed, he was, for where shall we find such freshness of spirit, such a defiance of the tooth of Time as in that grand old boy?