Be Early What

Be early what, if you are not, you will, when too late, wish you had been.
– Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (then 55)
in a February 7th, 1749 letter to his illegitimate son (then 17);
published in (wait for it . . .) “Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his Son”

Midway through a long-ish paragraph I almost blow past this sentence, disinclined to make the effort to sort through the asides that threaten to derail my train of thought. My train of thought was pretty linear to start with, and has become more so after 25 years of working to improve the readability of technical sales documents.

But I make myself read it again, slowly. OK, I get it, although the editor in me wants to trade some of that 1749 style for some 2017 readability. Like this, maybe, if I’m trying to retain the writer’s voice . . .

Be early what you will wish you had been, when it is too late.

Or this, if I’m trying to make sure everyone understands it and I don’t need to sell it to the writer . . .

Years from now, you might wish you’d been a different person all that time.
That will be too late: To prevent regrets, be that person now.

But hey. No publisher has offered to buy my letters; no son has even offered to read them.

Be early what, if you are not, you will, when too late, wish you had been.

This 268-year-old advice aligns with an impulse that I suspect has been part of the human condition for a long, long time and that I know for sure is still common today: the impulse of the older to advise the younger. And so people write commencement speeches, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, and emails about the things they wish they’d known when they were in their teens/twenties/thirties/forties.

I figure that younger folks are likely not listening, or, at least, not learning, which makes these efforts sort of sad, really. But it’s beyond sad — it’s just weird — when older people also write about the things they’d like to tell their own younger selves, who are definitely not listening.

Acceptance is knowing the past will never get any better.
– Alcoholics Anonymous slogan

I myself sometimes succumb to this impulse to try to improve my past.  “If only,” I think, “I’d taken that chance, developed that skill, done those exercises.” Yes, indeed, if only I’d done the work back then so that I could now effortlessly be the person I wish I were. Or as the 4th Earl of Chesterfield might put it, “If only I’d been early what.”

But even though I’m too late to be early for my life as a whole, I’m just in time to be early for my eighties. If I stop talking to my younger self, maybe I’ll be able to hear my older self. What will the 85-year-old me wish she could tell the 65-year-old me?

I can’t hear all of it clearly yet, but I’m pretty sure she’s saying something about taking that chance, developing that skill, doing those exercises. Dagnab it. It sounds depressingly like work.

But hey. What the heck will she know?


This entry was posted in Mortality, New Perspectives, Thinking Broadly and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Be Early What

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Precisely why I started learning to play the recorder. Tenor recorder, not that shrill elementary school instrument of torture. And dognap it, it IS hard work. So hard, sometimes, that I want to quit, to do something easier, like learn to mix margaritas. (It would be a scandalous waste to pour them down the drain, after, wouldn’t it?)
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Good for you. Of course, you can learn to do both, you know (playing the tenor recorder and mixing margaritas).

  2. Tom Watson says:

    You can improve your past, you know. Just polish it up a bit.

    We’ve lived in 10 different cities or towns, stretching over three provinces. That’s an advantage. The longer you are away from a place the colder the trail of crumbs becomes, to the point where just certain parts remain.

    And, eventually, everybody improves…sometimes quite a bit…about five minutes after…well, you know! I’ve seen it frequently.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Ah, the mutability of memory. Yes, that would be another approach to improving the past. And as for absence making the heart grow fonder – not for us, surely.

  3. Marion says:

    Like Jim, I learned to play the recorder as an adult (in my 40s) and got pretty good at it: I played with a recorder group and we actually performed in public a couple of times. However, by my 50s I had forgotten it. If I picked one up now, in my 60s, I would be starting from the very beginning, learning the basic finger positioning. What’s that song? “Everything Old is New Again”, but I don’t think that’s what it refers to.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – I guess if we can lose facility in our mother tongue if we stop using it as adults, we can completely lose anything we’ve learned at a more advanced age. I wonder whether you’d at least learn it faster the second time around?

      • Marion says:

        That’s a positive thought that I’ll hold on to – for my 80s when I contemplate re-recordering.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Marion – And if there are still bank tellers giving us attitude, you can say to her/him/it (assuming an automated version), “Yes, I did this in my youth, and Barbara told me I’d be glad if I took it up again. Even at my age.”

  4. When J & I bought the condo next door and broke through to make one big studio we live in, I told a teller at the bank I had come to know over the years. She said, “At YOUR age?” I was only 70! and felt 50 with the new lease on life it gave me. After four years, every time I walk into it, I still feel thankful that we took on the enterprise “at my age”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Only 70, eh? Now there’s an inspiring comment. We just need to keep on keeping on, I guess.

  5. Judith Umbach says:

    Life is lived only in forward motion, and I for one am glad. My 85 year-old-self will just have to contend with what my 66 year-old-self chooses to do or stumbles into (including dangling prepositions). My latest personal motto is “This is a no scold zone.”

    • Judith, you have learned we are only able to learn what we are ready to learn.
      Without a lock, no key will work.

      I like your “no scold zone” motto.
      I would like to think I am able to learn that.

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – I’ve seen St. Frances of Sales quoted thusly: Be patient with everyone, but above all with yourself.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Scolding of self excluded, too? Or even primarily? Since we will one day be the output of today’s decisions and actions, maybe it is a bit odd to do anything but be here now.

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