beyond grumpiness

I suspect you have noticed that many old people are grumpy. I think the explanation for such widespread grumpiness is fairly simple.

Perhaps you’ve been in a relationship — with parents or siblings or spouses or even friends — in which the little foxes spoil the grapes. It’s not the big foul acts or horribly cruel words that do you in, it’s the slow drip drip drip of little annoyances that become over time a vast sea of frustration. Surely you’ve been there? You become exasperated by someone’s passing comment and when they are genuinely puzzled by your anger over so trivial a matter, you try to explain (apologetically, penitently, I hope) that it wouldn’t be a problem if this thing had happened once but it has happened a thousand times. It’s the repetition that kills you.

I think that’s how it is for old people — not only on a personal but also on a cultural level — and I speak as someone who is, I suppose, entering that territory. Take for instance the debates over the last few years in the academy about whiteness, representation, cultural appropriation, the Western canon, the classroom as a venue for social justice, etc. etc. These are precisely the arguments that roiled the academic humanities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The vocabulary can differ slightly, but otherwise we who were alive and alert then know the script. Heck, the arguments of thirty years ago often echoed arguments of a quarter-century earlier, those that arose in the student-protest era of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

This is not to say, of course, that everything is the same. For instance, in the Sixties the student protesters wanted to dismantle the existing institutional structures, whereas today’s protesters usually just want management to take their side. But the overall terms of engagement are remarkably similar, and that’s frustrating for an older person, for the same reason (ironically enough) that it’s frustrating to hear grandpa tell the same story over and over again. It’s a maddening repetition — the first time as farce and the second as farcier.

And then you reflect that not only has no one learned anything from the previous instantiation of these debates, most of the people shouting at each other today don’t even know that the debates took place. They’re mouthing the words of their predecessors — in some cases they’re even mouthing the words of their earlier selves — but the relentless presentism of our social media environment creates what I have called the Ministry of Amnesia. You can’t learn from the past if you don’t know what happened in it. So yeah, I’m gradually turning into a grumpy old man. Because nobody learns anything.

The only thing that anybody knows how to do when a new conflict arises, and this is just as true of the conflict in Ukraine as it is of any other, is to insist that these tragic events only prove my politics. That’s it, that’s all anybody has got. There are no circumstances, no matter how dreadful, sufficiently dramatic to make anyone fall off of their hobbyhorse. (That site hasn’t been updated in a decade, because what would be the point?)

So they were as far as I can tell two ways to go. One is increasing frustration and the other is detachment. Or … perhaps I should say that there are three possible responses: frustration, nihilistic detachment, and the detachment that seeks peace.

These are precisely the concerns of T. S. Eliot’s valedictory poem, “Little Gidding,” in which he makes a version of my threefold distinction:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives — unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.

Of course, “attachment” is not the same thing as frustration — but frustration arises from attachment. If you didn’t care you would walk away or tune a person out rather than hanging around to be an asshole. You would be indifferent (and maybe the targets of your frustration would prefer that). A little earlier in “Little Gidding,” when Eliot encounters

some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many,

he learns what that particular variety of attachment leads to:

“the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.”

Is there a way to avoid this dark fate? Yes:

“ From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

Until you submit to that refining fire, your frustration, your impotent rage — no matter how correct you are — does nothing to help others and brings only misery to you. That your frustration has a legitimate cause means nothing when seen from this perspective. So I’ve been thinking about this passage regularly for more than a decade now — since I wrote my treatise “Against Stupidity” a decade ago, a treatise in which I argue for the canonization of Jonathan Swift. (I still advocate that elevation, by the way.)

And there’s a passage from another work that I often think of in this context: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. It involves an encounter between Jayber, the barber in the small town of Port William, and a neighbor named Troy Chatham, who sees the world rather differently than Jayber does. In this scene the men in Jayber’s barbershop discuss the then-current protests against the war in Vietnam.

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.” […]

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

That’s quite a sting in the tail of that anecdote.

The first step, I guess, is to know what the Bible teaches, what the Lord commands of us. The second step is to understand that if I can shame and silence my neighbor with a Bible verse but have not love, I am no better than a clanging cymbal. The third step, the terrifying step, is to hold my tongue until I can love the Troy Chathams in my life. Else I will end up in the condition prophesied for Eliot by his master’s admonitory ghost.

It’s a hard path to walk, this Way of avoiding both indifference and “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly.” But the hard path is the only real Way. (All the others circle back on themselves.) So I try every day to follow it. I don’t think I could manage even that if I did not have an Advocate to accompany me, to encourage me, and to guide me.