Fingerpainting Into Middle Age

David Todd McCarty

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Photo by Zaur Giyasov on Unsplash

We lose our nerve as we age, there is no getting around it. Not you, you say. Maybe so. Momentum is a wonderful thing and if you’re already moving, it’s not so hard to keep it going. If you’re a hardcore traveler and you just keep traveling, it’s probably easier to survive on forward momentum. But if and when we stop, and sit down, say for a few decades, it’s really hard to start running again.

I was never naturally adventurous, even though I’ve done a lot of far-out things. I had to force myself many times. But I would do it because I would get angry with myself if the only reason not to do it, was fear. So I made myself do things, knowing I would be happier if I did. The difference is there were so many things I didn’t know to be afraid of.

Curiosity goes a long way when it comes to taking risks. Not worrying too much about what others think also helps quite a bit. Being willing to fail is the ultimate, and as much as I believe in it, I have often not done what I should have, not risked more, especially knowing now how little I was risking at the time. I thought this thing would be a big risk, but now looking back, understand that it was nothing.

It’s a bit like looking back at old photos and marveling at how young and thin you once were. No matter what year, you were always thinner and better looking than you thought at the time. At almost any given point in time, it was as good as it was ever going to get. You were beautiful. 

This is not to say aging is all bad. It’s just to say there is a reason we recruit young men to fight wars. They are invincible. Both mentally and physically. There is something that happens once you know too much. You become cautious. There are really good reasons to be afraid. It’s not just theoretical. You’ve seen the consequences of foolish behavior. So we risk little and achieve less. Wisdom has its place, and there is much to do with it, but nothing beats sheer ignorance and youthful arrogance for startling innovation. Wisdom is good for analyzing what happened, but it won’t prepare you for the future.

If you want to experience real genius, hire natural talent and let them tackle a problem that can’t be solved. They will achieve the impossible because they are too ignorant to know it can’t be done.

We like to hand over the reins to youth and then criticize them for failing. We could have told them that wouldn’t work, we say. But we aren’t learning from failure and they are. We think failure reinforces our old prejudices about what we think we know, while they are learning how to navigate a new world we have no experience with.

There is a reason why after a lifetime of experience, musicians and artists rarely produce their greatest work at the end. We don’t work towards excellence. We start there and Benjamin Button it down till the end. You want to see an artist? Give a four year some paint and no rules. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once they grow up.”

It makes you wonder what we’re teaching kids in school because it certainly isn’t how to maintain artistry in their lives. We teach them how not to get hurt. We teach them to be safe. We teach them how to manage risk. But we have forgotten about the magic that existed. We reach back through the yellow tinge of nostalgia and equate circumstances with quality. It wasn’t better than, we were.

It won’t be worse in the future either. The young will always be fearless, ready to tackle the world’s great problems, while the old fret the passing of time.

All is not lost, however. We can regain some of what we have lost. We have to remember that today is as good as it’s going to get for us. We have to remember what it was like to not know anything; to believe that there were still people who knew how everything worked. When we weren’t trying to keep the world spinning, we were free to imagine the impossible. Let the young people spin the universe for a time.

You might need a refresher course. Might I suggest finding a four-year-old? They are wonderful. Don’t be tempted to teach them what you don’t know. You are there to learn what the world looks like without the cataracts of wisdom. It will be a startling education if you’re open.

It’s time to paint with abandon. Find a load-bearing wall. Use your fingers. Quickly before your kids catch you. Tomorrow we might turn around and find out it’s over. We will look back at today, no matter how old we are, and think, “You old fool. Why didn’t you do it while you had the chance? Look how young and beautiful you were.”

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Writer, Director, Photographer, Designer, and Journalist. I am endlessly curious about politics, street food, photography, and garden gnomes.

Cape May Court House, NJ
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