Too Late Smart

In the movie western Will Penny (1968), Charlton Heston’s title character, an ageing cowboy, is thrown together with a young woman who has taken possession of the crude cabin he is to occupy while watching over the far reaches of his employer’s huge cattle ranch. When Will arrives at the cabin for his winter sojourn, Catherine, his squatter, has already taken up residence. But it’s gelid outside; Will can’t just turn her out into the cold. So they share the cabin, and in short order an attachment develops. When Catherine suggests it, Will considers taking up with her to go out West and homestead. But given their difference in age, Will doesn’t see how it can work, and he laments: “It's just a case of too soon old and too late smart.”

Of all his films, Penny was Heston’s personal favorite. The bond between Will and Catherine is poignant. But Will ends it and rides off to continue his life as a lonely cowhand. Is he “too late smart” or just… too late?

“Too late” are words that reverberate, and even haunt. Shakespeare’s Othello speaks them just before he murders his faithful wife. I don’t know the context, but mobster “Lucky” Luciano said: “It’s too late to be good.” With “too late,” a once bright future is no longer possible. It can be due to the way one has lived, or to one’s decisions, or to some tragic flaw in one’s character, but one runs out of time: it’s too late.

I don’t remember what they were selling, but a TV commercial a few years back contained a line that stuck with me and it went something like this: “We all get smarter as we get older. The trick is to get smart early enough to do yourself some good.”

Now that resonated, especially for an old coot. In today’s America, young people are kept from getting smart “early enough.” Childhood is stretched out for decades. There are “adult” Americans (well, at least they’re old enough to vote) who are hooked on video games, spectator sports, reality TV, and other diversions that keep them from examining their lives and growing up. Many of us spend much of our lives evading life.

Getting smart involves change. But many are torn about change. Oh, change is fine for the other guy, but changing oneself, that’s not necessary. Some folks expect everyone else to change before they’ll even consider change for themselves. Despite all the blather about change 6-7 years ago, one wonders how amenable to actual change our Avatar of Change, B.H. Obama, is. He seems averse to change. Has our president ever changed one of his core ideas? Some would rather fundamentally change the entire system than shed any of their treasured ideas.

Getting smart “early enough” to get some benefit from it is difficult enough, but getting smart later in life can be monumentally difficult. If for years one has had a set of core beliefs, or been committed to some philosophy, or some political ism, examining those ideas can threaten one’s very identity. And then if one discards those ideas, one is set adrift. One needs a substitute, something else to believe in. That something else might just be the other: the ideas of those one has been demonizing for years. How unsettling.

The biggest impediment to getting smart is self. Another impediment is one’s friends and associates, who may shun or shame one for falling out of lockstep and getting off the reservation. One may need to seek out a whole new set of friends. How unsettling.

Past a certain point in life, the odds are that the die is cast, the stones are set, and one isn’t likely to change one’s philosophy and ideas. But there are notable exceptions. Several of today’s most outstanding conservatives used to be “liberals” (i.e. progressives) or even radical leftists. Yet, as old-timers these people were able to change. The most notable example of such change is probably David Horowitz, a “red diaper baby” from a communist enclave in New York City. The catalyst for change in Horowitz’s case was the murder of a friend. Such change involves questioning every one of one’s dearest beliefs; it involves taking oneself apart and putting the pieces back together with better glue. It’s an act of intellectual heroism.

We’re talking about wisdom, cowboys and cowgirls. Wisdom is getting to be in short supply in America. That may be because wisdom depends on other virtues that are also in short supply. Modesty is one of the virtues wisdom rests on; one must know what one doesn’t know. To attain wisdom, one must be able to recognize that one doesn’t know it all, and that others may have a more complete understanding. Honesty is also required for wisdom to develop. One precondition for the developing of wisdom that may not be as obvious as the others is that one’s higher allegiances must be to something greater than self. If one’s first commitment is to self, one is unlikely to become wise.

When folks near their dusty end, some get philosophical and reflective. They’ll think back on missed opportunities and regret that they’ve lived like certifiable idiots. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could have such a perspective at, say, the age of 30, when it would do us some good?

There’s nothing particularly insightful here, but these commonplaces have been forgotten, and are even derided in today’s oh-so-sophisticated America. Sometimes it seems that my generation, the Boomers, has screwed things up royally. Can we honestly say that we are leaving behind a better America for our kids? You might think about that when you vote on Tuesday.

I don’t know if it was wise for me to essay an essay on wisdom; what do I know? But if we average Americans don’t grow up a little, and fast, if we don’t get a little wisdom while the getting is good, we may soon find that it’s too late for America. Excuse me while I ride off into the sunset.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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