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.