Counting the Cost…or Not

If you happen to be the hero of a folk song and your mother gives you a warning, you had better listen to your mother, or you will soon be dead. Don’t take your guns to town, son—and Johnny, tae the green woods dinnae gang, for crying out loud.

I’ve written before about how the part of the brain responsible for good judgment is the last to mature in a young adult. There’s nothing very startling in this; it’s pretty much self-evident. But some months back I heard something else on the subject that really gave me pause.

Generally speaking, older people think in terms of risk, and younger people think in terms of reward.

On the surface, there’s nothing very startling here either. Of course older people think in terms of risk; we’ve lived long enough to experience the repercussions of ill-advised behaviors. Pain and regret are good teachers. When you’ve seen firsthand how things can go horribly wrong, you tread more lightly next time around. They don’t call it the School of Hard Knocks for nothing.

But here’s the thing that really caught my attention. For a younger person, it’s not so much that he underestimates risk; his assessment of the risk of a given course of action is actually pretty accurate. He just values the reward more.

Youth doesn’t count the cost. It ventures all, spends the wad, stays up all night. It beats its fool head against any of a number of obstacles until at last, bloody and bruised but unbeaten, it reaches the prize—or not. It is lavish, extravagant, and far better grounded in clear-eyed realism than is commonly supposed. Whether we call it passionate or merely foolhardy depends largely on whether or not it succeeds.

Obviously we can’t all live that way all the time, or like Jock o’ Braidislee and Billy Joe, we’d all soon be dead. There is much to be said for circling the wagons and protecting what you have. But middle age is sometimes a little too quick to undervalue and upbraid youth’s impetuosity. The best course isn’t always the one that looks the most prudent, and what we call wisdom may be fear or indolence in disguise. Inaction or calcification can kill you just as dead as a gunfighter’s bullet or a forester’s arrow.

For all that, I don’t think youth and middle age have to be at odds. Maybe the truth is that we need each other more than we admit.

Waiting To Be Asked

It happens more and more the older I get. Someone—usually someone young—is muddling his way through some difficulty or other. He hasn’t confided in me, but I have a rough idea of what’s going on. And he’s floundering. Not because he’s lazy or bad, but because he lacks experience and wisdom. He jumps to conclusions based on insufficient information, creating rifts that might not heal. I watch, and wait, and wish. I’m not exactly Solomon, but I have managed to pick up enough wisdom to navigate these waters. I know I could help—if only I were asked.

Sometimes it’s right to step up and intervene without being asked. Usually it’s not. Forcing a confidence is like helping a baby bird out of its shell: you can’t succeed without destroying something. The advice loses its value when presented unasked-for; the frame of mind isn’t right, and the words fall on stony ground.

So I stand and watch, mute and effectively powerless, hands tied by my own resolution not to barge in where I’m not wanted, wishing I could communicate without words that I’m not the enemy. It’s not merely that I can help; I want to help, I’d be thrilled to help. It would delight my soul to know that this person thought well enough of me to ask, that he trusted me, that he gave me a chance to make a difference for good.

Isn’t this the heart of God towards his children? Blind and bewildered, we stumble for lack of direction, and all the time he’s waiting eagerly to give it—if we would but ask. We often think of wisdom as something remote and inaccessible to ordinary mortals, but God offers it freely. Proverbs 8 pictures wisdom as a woman standing in a public place, crying out to any and all to listen and learn. God is compassionate toward our weakness; he doesn’t reproach us for not having all the answers already, and he encourages our feeblest sincere efforts. I love Isaiah 42:3: A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.

Seems like everything that makes me sorrowful teaches me something about God…