Old Too Soon, Smart Too Late

Wyatt January 2014

I listened to Krista Tippett interview Phil Donahue yesterday, and I can't stop thinking about it. I didn't grow up with a TV, so I don't have the experience of my mom stopping everything at 10:30 a.m. and tuning in. But I see why people did. He had an openly gay man on his show in 1967. His first guest was an atheist. He was there for Stonewall, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, AIDS.

What impressed me is that he was open to influence the whole time. A good Catholic boy who went to Notre Dame and to mass every Sunday, his ideas about God, life and justice radically changed as he engaged with his guests. Interviewing women, he became a different kind of man. Interviewing African Americans, he became a different kind of white man. Interviewing gay folks, he became a different kind of straight man. It didn't have to be that way. Some people, despite all the new information or exposure in the world, don't change their minds. John Gottman, the marriage guru, says the best marriages are the ones in which each partner is open to influence. They can be swayed. They change their minds. They evolve, become different people than they were at the altar. They say "I'm sorry," "I was wrong," or "I still don't understand."

There was a poignant moment when Mr. Donahue was talking about his regrets as a parent--that he wasn't around enough, that he wasn't affectionate enough toward his children. "Old too soon, smart too late," he lamented. I know there's no substitute for life experience--sometimes you just have to live long enough to know some things. But he expressed hope that generations after him could get smart sooner, solving our ecological and social problems with attention, compassion, and teachability.

Certainly I want to be raising children that get smart about life sooner rather than later. But it's also a call to ME. Am I paying attention? What kind of emotional wake am I creating in my personal and professional relationships? How open am I to seeing things differently? How teachable, how curious am I? How willing to change my mind? How in awe?

Wyatt is always quoting random facts about stars, planets, geological time, and world records. He can't get enough of this crazy world. Maybe, if I hang around him long enough, I've still got a chance at being smart.