These familiar words from Ecclesiastes illustrate a lesson that it has taken me many years to learn, and probably I am not alone in this. At any given point in life’s course, the value of what we are engaged in is not determined exclusively by its intrinsic worth, but also by its appropriateness to time and place.
In the Seven Ages of Man speech in "As You Like It," Shakespeare (echoing a separate tradition) sets forth a similar insight. However, the ages-of-man concept is too fatalistic, implying that the segments of life inescapably follow in a preordained sequence.
In reality the seasons of life are not predetermined. They can occur in various sequences, though to be sure our bodily capacity places limits. Moreover, life’s seasons are, as it were, laminated, with one often overlapping another.
Let us look at some examples. For me the last thirteen years were ones of intense travel, much of it to exotic places. I began in 1992 with a trip around the world with my partner Neal. In January of this year, though, I spent a week in London. It was just fine, but the stay enabled me to realize that the season of intense travel was over. That doesn’t mean that I will never travel abroad again, but it will not be in the same context, where one trip built on another to produce a complex image of world culture. These days I relive some of the traveling through consulting illustrated books in my copious library.
Now, a year after retirement from my teaching job, my new season is writing. I write every day, and not just on this blog. With my books, manuscripts, and information portals, my apartment is the place to do it. Long walks keep the creative juices flowing.
One of my oldest friends has the leisure in her later years to make a thorough study of the medium of film, to which she had been formerly indifferent. New DVDs come in every week through the mail. By contrast I had my film season in the sixties and seventies, the art-house era. Now I indulge only moderately (though I wouldn’t have have wanted to miss the Antonioni retro now occurring at Columbia University.) Should I chide my friend for her "foolish" concern with film? Not a bit of it. Nor does she chide me for not getting involved in movies again. We are experiencing our seasons in a different sequence.
To be sure this ability to segment life according to phases of appropriateness is the product of affluent, middle-class living. In former times there was little opportunity for such nuanced self-creation. Even members of the aristocracy found themselves destined for the army or the church, and had to stick to those careers.
To some extent the old habits of fixed career paths survive. This is why, I think, we cling to a season after it is to all intents and purposes over. But one shouldn’t drop things prematurely—and some things never completely. That is why I will still see films and still travel occasionally--Deo volente.
One can also rule things out prematurely. Still, I doubt that it would be wise now, at the age of 71, to realize my fleeting youthful ambition to be a motorcycle guy. Carpe diem, seize the day, is an ancient precept. Yet one cannot seize every day. But if one does enough of them, following a realistic awareness of seasonality, one is doing all that is necessary.