It was possible with this man to fully test one’s respect for age, which is in all civilized nations a duty. And I found that my feelings were mixed about him. I discovered in him a conceit in regard to his long sojourn on this earth, as if it were somehow a credit to him. In the presence of his good opinion of himself, I could but question the real value of his continued life, to himself or to others. If he ever had any friends he had outlived them, except his boy; his wives—a century of them—were all dead; the world had actually passed away for him. He hung on the tree like a frost-nipped apple, which the farmer has neglected to gather. The world always renews itself, and remains young. What relation had he to it?
I was delighted to find that this old man had never voted for George Washington. I do not know that he had ever heard of him. Washington may be said to have played his part since his time. I am not sure that he perfectly remembered anything so recent as the American Revolution. He was living quietly in Ireland during our French and Indian wars, and he did not emigrate to this country till long after our revolutionary and our constitutional struggles were over. The Rebellion Of ’45 was the great event of the world for him, and of that he knew nothing.
I intend no disrespect to this man,—a cheerful and pleasant enough old person,—but he had evidently lived himself out of the world, as completely as people usually die out of it. His only remaining value was to the moralist, who might perchance make something out of him. I suppose if he had died young, he would have been regretted, and his friends would have lamented that he did not fill out his days in the world, and would very likely have called him back, if tears and prayers could have done so. They can see now what his prolonged life amounted to, and how the world has closed up the gap he once filled while he still lives in it.
A great part of the unhappiness of this world consists in regret for those who depart, as it seems to us, prematurely. We imagine that if they would return, the old conditions would be restored. But would it be so? If they, in any case, came back, would there be any place for them? The world so quickly readjusts itself after any loss, that the return of the departed would nearly always throw it, even the circle most interested, into confusion. Are the Enoch Ardens ever wanted?
A popular notion akin to this, that the world would have any room for the departed if they should now and then return, is the constant regret that people will not learn by the experience of others, that one generation learns little from the preceding, and that youth never will adopt the experience of age. But if experience went for anything, we should all come to a standstill; for there is nothing so discouraging to effort. Disbelief in Ecclesiastes is the mainspring of action. In that lies the freshness and the interest of life, and it is the source of every endeavor.