Mark Twain is famously said to have revised his assessment of his parents’ wisdom:
When I was seventeen I was convinced my father was a damn fool. When I was twenty-one I was astounded by how much the old man had learned in four years.
Twain’s words speak to a crucial perspectival aspect of our life: our critical judgments are a function of our lived lives and experiences. We appreciate our parents doubly, if not many times more, when we finally become parents ourselves; we realize what their parenting experiences must have been like in their own complex particularity. The people we thought were experts (or sometimes, less kindly, bumbling fools) were fumbling around themselves, learning the tricks of the parenting trade on the fly, making it up as they went along, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not. We realize how little we knew of them, just as we later realize with a start that our children know very little of us and will live their lives largely free of our presence and inspection and evaluation. We realize too, like Twain, that while our youthful impatience often led us to condemn our parents’ bumbling in matters that seemed straightforward to us, we did so because we did not understand the full dimensions of the problems that perplexed them. The facile solutions we had imagined for our ‘life problems’ had already been considered, rejected, and moved on from by our parents; we must, despite our reluctance, follow in their footsteps. That imperfect solution that so enraged us when we were young now strikes us as a masterful compromise, a skillful navigation between the Scylla and Charybdis of competing moral and parenting imperatives; we can only see that now because we have grown and learned and realized it as such.
Twain notes too that the more we know, the more we realize we know very little. Moreover, our knowledge now makes our past more ignorant, and our assessments of the ignorance of others ever more flawed. By learning more, we realize how little we know and how much others know. This is especially true of academics who lose confidence as they progress through their PhD; gone is the cocky undergraduate who thought he knew everything; in his place stands the modest and humble grad who has learned how vast human knowledge is, how insuperable its problems, and how much everyone else knows in the fields in which he did not pursue further study; he learns that in his chosen field, many have explored its furthest reaches with diligence and creativity. We realize we have shrunk while the world has grown; the road we have set out on speaks of no end.
Youth is wasted on the young; the wisdom of this claim is never more apparent than when we realize how we muddled around in our fogs of misconceptions and ignorance, even as it is true that while we are young, we were aware of truths we forget as we grow older.