I remember an incident that happened at a 5 p.m. Mass, the first time I ever preached at the parish at which I am stationed. It was 2008, the year I was ordained a deacon. Just before the Mass, I went over to the sacristy entrance to look out at the congregation, and I saw an old man making his way up to the front. He looked to be late 80s, possibly early 90s. I had a bit of a panic attack. I looked at him and thought to myself: “What am I going to say to him? What can I teach him? He’s twice my age.” I felt genuinely embarrassed at the prospect of preaching to him and others his age. This man has lived; he has so much more experience.

I’ve been teaching Marriage Prep for the archdiocese for a number of years now. The couples I work with are generally in their 30s, some in their 40s. I realize, however, that I have this tendency to assume that they know certain things, so I think to myself, “No need to get into that, they know this, and they know that,” etc. What I’ve come to discover, however, is that they don’t. They really don’t know. And the reason is that they lack the necessary experience, and experience is very important. It has tremendous significance. I tend to forget how much information experience has brought me over the years, information I did not have when I was in my 30s and 40s. Nor did I have the time to reflect upon the experience I was acquiring at that time, which was very limited. So I had to learn to stop assuming that people in their 20s, 30s and 40s know this or that or the other thing with respect to marriage, for example, or with respect to how to teach a group of students, or the importance of diplomacy, or with respect to the limitations of human knowledge, etc.

St. Augustine never said cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), but he did say: fallor ergo sum: “I err, therefore I am” (CD, 11, 26). It was error, being mistaken, that was for him the absolutely certain datum. This brings me to a very important point, something that is difficult for young people to appreciate. Thirties or forties is still rather young, and when we revise our point of view on something, it’s easy not to think about the implications of that, because after all, if I’m in my thirties or forties, and in my mind, that’s still young. But when a major revision took place in my 50s, such as a change of perspective, or an insight that led to a serious shift in my overall conceptual framework, I remember thinking to myself: “It took me 53 years to learn this,” or “It took me 56 years to learn that,” and so on. I’m 62, and I’m still saying things like this: “It took me this long to figure that out, and yet it is really quite simple. Why did it take so long?”

In other words, knowledge is difficult to achieve. Much of what we have in our heads is not really knowledge at all. It feels like knowledge, we often think it is knowledge, but it is very often a matter of belief, either a well warranted belief, or a not so well warranted belief, but rarely is it knowledge in the strict sense of that word. Our conclusions are for the most part drawn on the basis of plausible data that is available at the time, but we tend to forget that our information is for the most part deficient. With more information, we are well advised to draw a different conclusion. The problem with being young is that we remember those times when we were right, but almost instantaneously forget the moments we were wrong — and the benefit of drawing out the implications of this is lost. Moreover, being wrong feels the same as being right, so we can come to a reasoned conclusion on the basis of deficient information and feel exhilaration. It was hard to get young students to appreciate the fact that “feeling right” is not an indication that you are in fact right.

On the basis of available data, we interpret, we form a hypothesis, and instead of testing that hypothesis, we typically draw a conclusion that makes sense to us and which is emotionally coherent. The problem is that there are usually ten or so other possible hypotheses that also make good sense; moreover, we tend to settle on the worst possible hypothesis.

Good scientists know not to trust the first hypothesis, but the rest of us don’t. That’s why good scientists tend not to speak with a rhetoric of certainty, but will offer their thoughts as a tentative conclusion. Most people outside the world of science, however, tend to speak very dogmatically, especially young people. Learning to be comfortable with error and revision, as any good scientist must do if he is to maintain a level of sanity, is a condition for the possibility of experience–I recall a frustrated principal say about a colleague: “She has twenty years in the classroom and one year of experience.”

But that is why these years (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.) are a gift, and not a curse. We are told that we reach our prime in our 30s, and after that, it’s downhill. But that’s just the physical level. We don’t decline intellectually. It might be difficult to recall facts like we used to when we were younger, but spiritually, we do not necessarily decline. The 30s are not the prime of life. In our 50s, we’re moving into the prime. Our 60s, 70s, 80s — these are the spiritual prime. These are the years in which we are given the time to reflect upon the years of experience we’ve had. We have the time to reflect upon that huge and unique reservoir of experience and make connections. Our own unique life experience is the content of God’s providence in our lives. Every moment is packed with divine meaning and purpose. In silence, we reflect upon that life experience, much of it forgotten, and we allow God to bring to our mind certain insights into the meaning of the parts of that vast experience, and these will be unique to you, insights that others need and only you can provide.

This brings me to another important point I’d like to make that underscores the uniqueness of your own experience. To do so, I’d like to employ an analogy. Think of the taxonomy of the sciences, the various branches of a science that there are, branches of chemistry, i.e., biochemistry, organic chemistry, synthetic organic chemistry, and branches of psychology: cognitive psychology, environmental psychology, humanistic psychology, etc.

In 1911, there were only two branches of Astronomy, two branches of Optics. In 1970, however, there were 10 specialties of Optics, 26 specialties of Astronomy. As for psychology, there are now so many specialties: social psychology, forensic psychology, clinical neuropsychology, positive psychology, abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, evolutionary psychology, industrial psychology.

How does this happen? It all begins with the question. The word question comes from the Latin quaerere, which means to quest, to journey, to inquire. To pose a question is to position oneself for a journey, an avenue of inquiry. If I decide to go down this avenue rather than that avenue, I will discover things, houses, types of trees perhaps, etc., that I would not have discovered had I taken a different avenue. What happens in the sciences is that an individual scientist asks a different kind of question, because he’s interested in a different problem to solve, perhaps as a result of the situation he finds himself in. And posing a different question takes one down a different avenue of inquiry, and that opens up a whole new world to discover. What we are interested in determines what it is we notice. That is why I can walk for an hour with my daughter through a mall and at the end of that hour, she will have noticed things that I did not. It is the same for the sciences. One physicist is interested in solving certain problems, and so asks different questions, which lead to a whole new branch of that science.

Similarly, each person was and is interested in different things and problems to solve, which has led each of us to ask different questions, which take us down different avenues, and those problems are rooted in our unique situation. So, each one of us is a “branch” unto ourselves, so to speak. Your world, your experiences, your knowledge, are unique. In some ways, they dovetail with that of others, which is why friendships are usually formed, on the basis of common interests, but there is also a world of difference between friends.

Each one of us, in particular those in their 60s, 70s, and onwards, has a unique world of experience and knowledge that others simply do not have. It is easy to assume they have it — easy to assume that since we live in the same world, our experiences are pretty much the same. They are not. They are not the same because we are not the same; we are positioned differently (to pose, to position). The world is inexhaustibly complex. There are aspects to this world that have not been uncovered yet and will only be uncovered through a very specific question that has not yet been “posed.”

The aged have a rich world of experience that is unique, a unique source of knowledge, and part of their vocation is to spend time reflecting, in the presence of God, in silence, on that rich experience and allow the Lord to bring to the surface insights that those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s do not possess. They can’t possibly possess them; they don’t have the information, the data, they haven’t lived long enough and they haven’t spent enough time thinking about the experience they already have.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Pituk.

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Douglas McManaman was born in Toronto and grew up in Montreal. He studied philosophy at the University of St. Jerome’s College (Waterloo) and theology at the University of Montreal. He is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto and ministers to those with mental illness. He taught Religion, Philosophy and the Theory of Knowledge for 32 years in Southern Ontario, and he is the current chaplain of the Toronto Chapter of the Catholic Teachers Guild. He is a Senior Lecturer at Niagara University and teach Marriage Prep for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His recent books include Why Be Afraid? (Justin Press, 2014) and The Logic of Anger (Justin Press, 2015), and Christ Lives! (Justin Press, 2017), as well as The Morally Beautiful (Amazon.ca), Introduction to Philosophy for Young People (Amazon.ca), Readings in the Theory of Knowledge, Basic Catholicism, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. He has two podcast channels: Podcasts for the Religious, and Podcasts for Young Philosophers. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Ontario, Canada.

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