John Williams' historical novel Augustus tells the life story of the founder of the Roman Empire through a series of invented documents--letters, journal entries, official records--most of which are written about or to the man himself. The book concludes by finally revealing Augustus's own voice in a letter to a trusted confidant, written shortly before his death at age 75. It's a magnificent conclusion to a brilliant book, and I find this passage particularly striking:
The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them... [p 274-5]
I certainly see my own illusions reflected here, and although I don't feel quite ready to call myself a "man of age," these days I am less distressed by my failures and less excited by my triumphs. It's not that I don't have these feelings, but it's easier to step out from inside them, observe them, and let them go. Extremes of shame and pride alike seem a bit absurd.
This emotional evolution is a counterpart to Simon Wardley's Three Stages of Expertise, in which we start out as Beginners who know nothing, we then become Hazards because we think we know so much more than we actually do, and we're finally Experts when we realize how little we truly know relative to all there is to be known. We find wisdom when we grasp our ignorance.
Photo by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.