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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

10. On Hitting Forty - Charles McCabe

As he was reaching the dread age of 40, the English man-of-letters Cyril Connolly produced a remarkable little book called "The Unquiet Grave" under the signature Palinurus. In it there are many reflections about approaching 40, which for some people is a horrific age, in which the hoofbeats of the Lord are clearly heard for the first time.

In the book Connolly-Palinurus lets fall his personal resolution for the troubling oncoming day. "…Never again make any concession to the 99 percent of you which is like everybody else at the expense of the one percent which is unique."

I have passed on this gallant resolve to many of my friends as they approach 40; and should like at this time to pass it on to anyone who is nearing the age of ten or the age of 86. The rule is a permanent useful counsel for conduct.

Whether it be one percent or more or less, there is none of us so bleak of heart as not to recognize that little part of us which is what really enables us to write our signature or look at ourselves in the mirror of a morning. The thing is not your whole self; but it is your real self. It is what makes you John Hearvey Rosekrans, or whatever. It is the thing which prevents anyone else from assuming your identity, if it is strongly and honestly held.

The thing that is yours is nearly always a spikey thing. It makes living among your fellows just that bit more uncomfortable. That, in fact, is the best way to recognize the thing if you should be having trouble in doing so. There is a tendency to be a little too honest, a little too angry, a little too earnest, a little too good for comfort when your thing begins to show itself. One result is certain; your peers are going to look at you twice, and with a small mounting doubt. Yet you know, too much is good.

The well-oiled mechanism is a necessary and often beautiful thing. The will-oiled human being is on the way to becoming a mechanism and to forfeiting his humanity. Tunnel workers as well as diplomats need to cultivate the lubricating arts, without which social living would be impossible or too difficult to try. But there have to be some little mean chinks in the mechanism if you are to remain a 14-carat human, whether as tunneler or diplomat.

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," said Emerson. "Absolve you of yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world."

Bright brave works indeed from the Sage of Concord, and true damned words as well. The idea of absolving yourself from yourself, of pronouncing yourself free from guilt or shame, is really a pretty Jovian concept. But it is the only way to go. It may take a lifetime to achieve, or it may never be achieved. Even the failure to achieve personal absolution, when once the task is clearly undertaken, is still the closest thing to The Way that anyone of us is likely to find.

If this is just another boring method of saying Be Yourself, so be it. To paraphrase a pulpit platitude, the only self you've got to same is your own.

One of the socially useful results of saving your own self, or soul, or whatever, is that you are not likely to embark on the rather insolent task of saving the souls of others.

The chronic salvationist, as I've tried every so often to suggest, is the man who at base is not able to accept much less save himself, and projects his guilty uneasiness on the world in the shape of a Cause, of which he tends to be Prophet. That prophets are often without honor in their own country is not necessarily the fault of the country. Watch closely the man who does not save souls. He may have saved his own.

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