Last week I was listening in on a conversation among my 11 year old sister and her friends. They’re at the age where they think they’ve seen it all, know it all, and understand it all. One insightful girl remarked that people start and end this life in the same place: entirely dependent on others for all their basic needs. The comment sparked many others, and a serious philosophical discussion began.
I’m 16, and at the age where, through a series of screw-ups, I’ve become painfully aware of my own ignorance. I do know however, that old age is very different than childhood. Obviously, there are physical reasons for why old people don’t posses the liveliness of children, but I like to think it’s also because of the weight of their memories. For my community service requirement, I interview World War II veterans, trapping some of the planet’s heaviest memories into a palm sized cassette. It was through these encounters that I gained an understanding of the phrase “journey of life”.
I believe in learning through experience. I believe in its sanctity, its transforming power, and its importance in our lives. I go to bed many nights thankful that I haven’t screwed up my life yet- I’m not pregnant, not addicted to drugs, and have a decent grade point average- but when I take that step out of Eden, I know I’ll be okay. I’ll wake up one day with the weight of experience bearing down on me, and then I’ll be an adult. Near the end of the 18th century, the English poet, William Blake, wrote a set of poems on the two states- innocence and experience. He thought both were beautiful things; I do too.
When I think of the utmost level of human experience I think Howie Rovetto, a WWII veteran I interviewed last spring. He had been captain of one of the first squadrons to break into Germany. In Germany, Howie’s squadron discovered a concentration camp. Howie supervised the hospitalization of all the camp’s survivors, but when that was finished immediately put in for a mental health leave in the Alps. By the time I interviewed him in spring of 2007, Howie was in the intermediate stages of Alzhemiers; some things he remembered crystal clear but others slipped away from him entirely. I tried asking Howie more about his time in the Alps, but couldn’t answer. I was frustrated and he was in agony, so I skipped to the last question on the list. “Are you grateful for your experiences in World War II?” I asked. Without missing a beat he said “Of course.”
In Howie’s case his life had come full circle, like that friend of my sister’s had envisaged, he was now as dependent on his family as a young child. There is a poem by Lewis Carroll that I think Howie would have appreciated. It said that all journeys begin and end in the same place; it’s the change in ourselves when we come home again that makes it a journey.
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