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Youth, maturity and death

Any reasonably thoughtful person will progress as they grow in knowledge and maturity into a greater and greater state of uncertainty. With youth, one often has an unshakeable sense of being right, and of understanding the world, and of being certain. Experience has not yet shaken off misconceptions like leaves from a maple tree in Autumn, scarlet in their fury, fragile in their ending. One feels expert in things, but this sense of expertise is of course mistaken, as it comes not from true skill, but instead from the shallowness of one's view of what it means to be skilled or knowledgeable.

Aging is the death of more than just the body - but of that foolish certainty. After having discovered one's self to be wrong again and again about the very things one once felt were so obviously true, anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness will come to understand that certainty is an illusion. Where once I might have been willing to bet a great of money on something about which I felt sure to be true - felt in my bones was definitely correct; today I have been wrong about such things so many times that even things I feel must definitely, undoubtedly may true ... I must allow I may be mistaken about. And with a greater depth of understanding about any subject, or every subject, I understand that what I once thought was expertise was just foolishness - there is always more to learn.

This can be the death of action. It can lead to such crippling anxiety about failure; knowing that anything I do today is doomed to be inexpert and less skilled than if I tried to do it later. But it shouldn't be, because after all - it was the doing, the failing, the being wrong, and above all - learning why - that lead to the greater understanding and paradoxical loss of certainty. With maturity, we have to try anyway, even though we know it will be imperfect.

I think this is why many artists and thinkers do most of their best work when they are young and confident. They haven't been beaten, they haven't failed yet, so they're brash and unafraid. And then why so many of them burn out, and either do what they did well once over and over again, or simply retreat into obsolescence. Consider the writer you love who wrote a beautiful work in her youth; and despite more practice as a writer, more experience as a human being, simply writes again and again ever more caricature-like derivatives of that first masterpiece.

But there's a certain breed of cat, a certain kind of thinker, who revels in that uncertainty. Who finds ambiguity and lack of truth beautiful, who is charged up by it, and even more eager to explore and share his or her findings. The kind of artist who is constantly turning over a new leaf, or even who embarks on their artistic career late in life. This is the kind of artist who's seasoning as a person is a refinement of their work, like wine that smooths and rounds out. And this too is why we find weatherbeaten things so much more interesting than when the thing is new - leather that is covered in scuffs and wear, teak which has silvered and roughened.

The trick, as I get older, is to take my hardfought experience, and use it as fuel for the creative fire, rather than an excuse not to take chances. And never stop. I hope I'm a better writer today than I was 20 years ago, and I hope 20 years from now I look back on what I wrote today and see the seeds of what became even better.

Someday the process has to stop. Some day seasoning will become degenerating. Some day I'll have to die - but I hope I turn every moment from now until then into something that makes each day better than the last.

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