The Discovery of Middle Age
I’m still thinking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay about his frustrations at the difficulty he had this summer studying French in the Middlebury College immersion program. It irritated me because he found a way to blame white supremacy for the fact that he never learned how to be a good student, and thus finds himself, at 37, feeling that he will never be able to fully inhabit a world he wishes to inhabit (the French language).
Ignore the author’s tendentious race politics, though, and there’s a deeply human lesson in that essay. It’s here:
At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. It is the same feeling I had as a boy, wondering about the lilies and dinosaurs, listening to “The Bridge Is Over,” wondering where in the world was Queens.
And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.
I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.
What he discovered at Middlebury was not the effects of white supremacy, but the limits inherent within himself — limits all of us will eventually discover about ourselves, one way or another.
Like Coates, I was not a good student. It sounds like I made much better grades than he did, and unlike him, I earned a college degree (as did his four brothers). But I still wasn’t a good student. My college transcript looks like the smile of a supermodel missing several teeth. I never, ever developed good work and study habits — and this is something I very seriously regret every single day of my professional life. You know how they say that nobody gets to their death bed wishing they had spent more time at the office? I will get to my death bed wishing I had spent more time in class, and studying. I’m taking a junior-level history class at LSU with my 14-year-old son this fall, which means I’m shlepping twice a week across a campus that I haven’t been on as a student since 1989. I want to grab these kids I pass by the shoulders, shake them and say, “You have no idea what a privilege it is to have four years to do nothing but study. Don’t waste them! Don’t be like me!”
On the other hand, most of what I’ve learned that has done me any good personally or professionally I learned after I graduated. I taught myself, somehow — not through any disciplined study, but by developing intellectual passions and following them where they led me. What TNC writes of his young self here I could have written of my young self:
I was a boy haunted by questions: Why do the lilies close at night? Why does my father always say, “I can dig it”? And who really killed the dinosaurs? And why is my life so unlike everything I see on TV? That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me. And I have always preferred libraries to classrooms because the wide open library is the ultimate venue for this theater.
I have never worked well in groups, and have rarely enjoyed the classroom. Sit me down in a library, though, and I lose all track of time. This also means that I am a spectacularly inefficient writer and an embarrassingly sloppy thinker. I know this. I have no discipline. Never have had. I would have made a terrible academic. A systematic approach to learning is something I never mastered.
I didn’t much care about it in my twenties, because I was doing interesting work and living in interesting places. It wasn’t until … well, come to think about it, it wasn’t until I was around TNC’s age that I began to feel real regret for what I lacked in my education, which is really to say, what I lacked in my character and temperament. It didn’t come from a feeling of social inadequacy or professional limitation, but from a sense that time was passing, that I wasn’t going to live forever, and that there were so many things I wanted to learn, but probably wouldn’t. You know how you get to your mid-30s or later, and suddenly realize that you’re a lot poorer than you ought to be, because you didn’t save and invest in your early working years? That’s how I started to feel about learning as I approached 40.
When I went to France for a month with Julie and the kids two years ago, I finally confronted the fact that I’m never going to become fluent in French, and I’m never going to fulfill my dream of living for a time in France. I never did master the French language as a young man, but that was only because I was an undisciplined student. French came fairly easy to me, but I only did as much work as I needed to do to skate in class. There would be time one day, I told myself. And then, when I found myself with the money and opportunity to spend a whole month living in Paris, immersed in French, I threw myself into it and … failed. It was impossible to truly live in the French language when I had three kids to keep up with, but more than that, my brain just wasn’t as plastic as it once had been. The dream of French was leaving me. What’s more, as much as I loved every minute of being in Paris, I came to understand that living there was something that was not really within my grasp anymore. I lacked the resilience, and the flexibility, to adapt.
I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I’m wrong.
So, yes, I regret not having been more disciplined when I was younger, and had the opportunity to study French formally. I regret that I took classes at the Alliance Française before I was married with kids, and had time to devote to them, but couldn’t keep my mind on the memorization. The world of French is almost certainly closed to me. But if I weren’t regretting my failure to learn French when I had the chance, I would be regretting some other dream I let slip through my fingers. Here’s the thing, though: society didn’t do this to me. I did it to myself. Does anybody get to middle age without regrets for roads not taken? Marco the Lombard tells Dante in Purgatorio 26:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
to a groan, and then began: “Brother,
the world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew
all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.”
He’s talking about moral corruption, which is not the same thing as middle-age regret, but the sentiment is close. One reason I didn’t do as well as I ought to have done in my classwork was that I chose to study journalism. That meant spending most nights at the campus newspaper, until the paper closed late, and not getting started on homework till late. It meant being part of the culture of college newspapering, which often meant going to the bar after we put the paper to bed. I loved it. All of it. I loved it far more than I would have loved academic life. It suited me. In retrospect, I could have handled my responsibilities better back then, and learned more in my classes, but I have been able to build a career as a writer not only despite my weaknesses, but in some cases because of them.
I read the work of some journalists who have become experts in their field, and whose writing is characterized by deep reporting and serious reflection, and think: I could have been them, if I had been more disciplined and dedicated. I threw away my chance to do great work through my indiscipline. Then again, would I be in a position to have discovered a passion for Dante, and now to be writing a book about him? Would I be in a position to have moved back to Louisiana, by choice, and settled here? Would I be in a position to live a blessedly quiet life filled with books and writing and family and church and all the things that make me happiest? I don’t think I would be.
So, consider the career of Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t looked at his Wikipedia entry, do. He’s a college dropout who is incredibly accomplished. He’s a very talented writer who has taught writing at MIT, and is this year’s journalist in residence at CUNY. He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.
We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.
I wonder too if he would have had the stellar career he has today, and that he seems destined to continue to have, if he had a more conventional character, and had followed a more conventional path.
I finally did read TNC’s reparations essay, and while I’m not convinced that reparations are possible, much less that they would right the disgusting historical wrongs he documents, it cannot and should not be denied that black Americans have had to bear an unbelievable burden throughout American history, up to the present day. Reading the reparations essay last night, and the searing injustice and cruelty it records, made Coates’s attributing his struggles this summer in French to the indirect legacy of white supremacy even more absurd.
The truth, I suspect, is far more mundane: the man is discovering French at the same time he is discovering middle age. It’s like falling in love with a sexy young woman you met at a café in St-Germain, and realizing after you’ve already lost your heart that you’re too fat and too old to keep up with her.
As longtime readers know, when I returned to my Louisiana home, I expected things to be tied up in a neat bow. All the themes in the story of my life seemed to be converging in a happy ending, though one that emerged from great sorrow (the death of my sister). It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was wrong, and that because of things I could not change, and because of — how to put this? — forces of deep and intractable injustice within the culture of my family, things could never be set right, no matter what I did. I felt like a fool, a naïf, the chump of all chumps. It wasn’t just a personal humiliation; it involved a sense that my world was out of register, and was forever going to be a reproach to me. I had reached the hard limit of what I could do to make things right, and it still wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
That broke me.
And then I found Dante. I also found a therapist, and a prayer rule. But mostly it was Dante. The Divine Comedy is a book written by a man in exile, who would never regain what had been stolen from him. Yet he found peace and reconciliation within himself, despite being powerless to change his past or his future, beyond mastering his inner being. The story of how he spoke to me and showed me the way out of my own dark wood — a wood I had fallen into in part because I had made an idol of justice — can be read here.
By no means do I want to suggest that the burden I carried from my own set of circumstances compares to the burdens most African Americans have to carry. That would be as trivializing as saying that failing to build the social capital necessary to succeed at learning a foreign language is comparable to redlining. Still, it’s worth considering that all of us live within limits set down by our inner natures, and by the external factors that nurtured us (or failed to). And it’s worth considering the response the nun Piccarda has to Dante when he encounters her in heaven, and discovers that she is not ranked as highly as others there, because of an injustice she suffered on earth. She’s not bothered by this:
“Brother, the power of love subdues our will
so that we long for only what we have
and thirst for nothing else.”
This is where God has assigned them, she says, and if they desired something more, their wills would be discordant with God’s. To be ruled by love is to be in perfect harmony with the divine will, “so that our wills combine in unity.”
Piccarda then utters one of the most famous lines of the entire Commedia:
“And in His will is our peace.”
Then it was clear to me that everywhere in heaven
is Paradise, even if the grace of the highest Good
does not rain down in equal measure.
A sense of satisfaction with and gratitude for one’s blessings is the way to peace. It’s also just about the only way to make peace with one’s limits.