Sunday, September 18, 2016

`I May Live Better in the Time to Come'

Boswell and Johnson spent eighty-three days in the summer and fall of 1773 touring Boswell’s homeland and Johnson’s favorite punch line, Scotland. Almost half of their tour was spent on Skye, the largest and northernmost island in the Inner Hebrides. On Sept. 18, Johnson ignored his sixty-fourth birthday, while Boswell had other ideas, as he notes in his Life: “Before breakfast, Dr. Johnson came up to my room to forbid me to mention that this was his birth-day; but I told him I had done it already; at which he was displeased.” The root of Johnson’s displeasure was not vanity, as it would be for many. In a letter he wrote to Mrs. Thrale three days later, he explains:

“Boswell, with some of his troublesome kindness, has informed this family, and reminded me that the eighteenth of September is my birthday. The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress. But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted. With this I will try to be content.”

I concluded a long time ago that birthdays are best reserved for children. The celebrations tend to be more about those throwing the party than the celebrant, especially as we prepare to leave middle age behind. Next month I, like Johnson on Skye, expect to observe my sixty-fourth birthday. Johnson's letter continues:

“In proportion as there is less pleasure in retrospective considerations, the mind is more disposed to wander forward into futurity; but, at sixty-four, what promises, however liberal, of imaginary good can futurity venture to make? yet something will be always promised, and some promises will be always credited. I am hoping, and I am praying, that I may live better in the time to come, whether long or short, than I have yet lived, and, in the solace of that hope, endeavour to repose.”

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