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  • T. W. Emory

Too Soon, Too Late, Too Often

My grandmother used to tell her young grandsons that she could pin a glass of water to the wall. It seemed that each one of us in turn asked to see this marvelous feat performed when she offered to show us. When we got up close to the designated wall, my grandmother dropped the straight pin on the floor, which led to our bending over to pick it up for her, permitting her to pour water down the back of our neck. Folk humor. A bit of folk wisdom too, I suppose—or at least the implied suggestion to acquire it. Likely schadenfreude had something to do with why it was that each duped grandson managed to keep the secret so that another could be fooled when his time came.

In addition to such folk humor, my grandmother would also share folk wisdom from her youth, mainly wise sayings. She’d state an old adage first in Swedish and then translate it into English. (Probably natural for her to do so in that order, of course, but I must say that initially hearing an adage in a language you don’t understand definitely piques your curiosity.) ‘You can’t put an old head on a young body’ was often repeated. Looking back, it seems to me that my grandmother periodically remarked on lessons lost on the young and the need to grow wise from life experience. That kind of thing. Thinking on it now, I have to imagine that this must surely have stemmed from what she went through in her own life and had to learn along the way. I particularly recall her telling a story about some young children mocking and laughing at a decrepit old man who turned to them and said, ‘What you are, I have been. What I am, you may become.’ Profound and sobering reproof, to be sure, if one’s ‘young head’ was able to fully grasp it.

This matter of youth having to ‘pay their dues’ in order to become wise, is understandably a part of the human condition remarked on by sages, thinkers, wits, and debaters of different time periods and in various lands.

For instance, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is credited with saying, “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.” Something similar is found in a Dutch proverb which states, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” It’s easy to see how variations of this particular sentiment have surfaced here and there and at different times, simply owing to what has been too often observed as one generation succeeds another.

I recently came across a concise saying attributed to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), an Austrian writer of psychological novels. I’d never heard of her before, but apparently some regard her as one of the most important German-language writers of the last part of the 19thcentury. She wrote: “In youth we learn; in age we understand.” Again, a succinct thought which hopefully becomes much clearer in meaning to one as the years roll by.

Finally, one of my all-time favorite youth-versus-age remarks is ascribed to the playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), who said: “Youth is wasted on the young.” The truth of this can really hit home, especially after you’ve done your own fair share of wasting.

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