They just look like old men. And because of that, they are seen as elderly rather than wise. But there is a wisdom that comes with age. The old have walked the path we tread. They have seen the landscape through which we are traveling. They have felt our passions and known our dreams, though perhaps in different shape and in different measure. In their eyes we can see our future. In our eyes they can see their past. In some fundamental way, they know the place where we are going.
The look I saw in the eyes of both those older men in the past two days was a look of deep compassion and understanding. They understood something about me, just as I understand something about the hopeful, headphone-wearing twenty-year-olds in that gym. It is knowledge unspoken, but it is knowledge, nonetheless. They also know that few will seek them out. They have accepted the fact that few will ask them to share what it is that they have come to understand. Their time has come and passed; the younger generations want little more from them than reminiscences.
I was honored to speak to both these men. I hope I showed them proper respect in our conversations. I hope, too, that I was listening to them for what they can teach me about life, not merely for what they can reveal as witnesses to the past. For each touched me deeply. In their presence, I felt both judged and understood. It was as if their eyes, still bright, saw something I myself could not see. Their gazes gave me silent comfort, as if to say, “It’s all right to be where you are. It is exactly where you ought to be.” It was the kind of comfort that I hope to give my son as I see him moving through choppy waters — a look of understanding that says, “You are not alone.”
We live so strongly within the boundaries of our own experience. If we long for anything, it is usually for a time past, when we were younger, stronger, better looking, and not yet so bound by decisions we have made. We seldom long for a future where our bodies are less but our spirits and insight are more. Yet, that future is there. It is in the eyes of those who have lived longer, seen more, and come closer to a resolved understanding of their place and purpose on this planet. I feel better as a man, better as a person, and filled with a new sense of challenge and responsibility for having encountered those two old men. Their mortality, so close to the surface, has touched me in some deep and irreducible part of my own being. I feel observed and, in a strange way, renewed. They have given me the gift of their witness and the blessing of their understanding. May I take that gift, learn from it, and find a way to pass it on.
~ Kent Nerburn, Two Old Men in Ordinary Sacred
Photo Credit: va.gov