At a recent party, a friend challenged the group to name one good thing about getting older. Most people mentioned longterm relationships: children, grandchildren, partners, friends. But I think there is also an intellectual benefit which I had difficulty articulating, until I ran across this passage in the book Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. The main character, Richard, is a retired Classics professor.
“Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional knowledge he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. How many times, he wonders, must a person relearn everything he knows, rediscovering it over and over, and how many coverings must be torn away before he’s finally able to truly grasp things, to understand them to the bone? Is a human life long enough? His lifetime or anyone else’s?”
It is exhilarating to finally have time to read more widely and synthesize new information with prior knowledge. When I practiced medicine, even at Social Security, I felt constrained to use my continuing education for practical purposes, to learn about conditions I was was likely to encounter. Now I read more widely, and discover unexpected connections.