Now that I have grown old and reached the venerable age of 93, I live more in the past than in the present. With physical activity restricted by what has been a gradual waning of bodily strength, I of necessity spend more time alone, my contemporaries no longer alive, the younger generations too preoccupied with their own current issues, both personal and professional.
It is a time of recollection. Scenes from childhood, adolescence, student days, marriage, motherhood, employment, and volunteer activity lash before my eyes — but not in so orderly a chronological sequence. Not only do I no longer see these scenes of my life in black and white, but the perspectives are altered. Details I had not previously perceived are suddenly visible. I recall being at the railway station, cheerfully setting off to make aliyah to Israel. I now see the tears in my parents’ eyes, even though I was fulfilling their own passionate Zionist ideals. And I recall my little children crying while they watched me at the window, as I set off for work waving good-bye and disappearing into the distance. I revisit the past, and it is revised. With age comes hindsight.
While many of the memories remain blessedly blissful, many others arouse regret: regret at mistakes made, sins committed, duties neglected, words spoken too hastily, words that remained unspoken.
I confront decisions made in great certitude of taking the right path — decisions that now seem to me more questionable. The self-righteousness of youth is replaced by a realization that there might well have been a different path to follow, one in which duty replaced the fulfillment of my own desires. Was I right in leaving elderly parents in England in order to achieve the satisfaction of aliyah to Israel? To what extent should obligations come before self-satisfaction? Was I right in trying to combine mothering of six children with an active professional career and numerous volunteer activities?
Is this what the psalmist who taught us to “count our days so that we obtain a heart of wisdom” is hinting at when referring to the necessity of accepting our human frailties, the imperfections of our lives, our mortality, as part of the process of ripening, aging?
There is no way in which one can go back in time. But I know I can learn, belatedly, from all these experiences. What should I, could I, have done differently? Is there still a possibility of making amends?
Confessing, confronting my faults and failures, arouses a mixed response. There is contrition, but at the same time comes enlightenment, an awareness of having learned something, something I can still pass on to others.
How much time have I left in which to do that? Today, I am fully aware of the inevitability of questioning one’s past decisions. To be wholly satisfied with what I did is to be arrogant, blind to my human frailty. Insight — as honest as possible an evaluation of my decisions, my actions, and my errors — generates wisdom: an evaluation that need not necessarily lead to penitent breast-beating any more than it should induce total self-satisfaction. I am, after all, human, and all flesh is frail.
Old age is a time of storytelling, of re-counting our days, of passing on, bequeathing. Each of us has something, some insight, that might ease the passage through life of the younger generations. For example, I’ve learned there is rarely one sure, incontestable, definitive answer to any dilemma. We cannot know the results of our having made different decisions, questioning “the road not taken.”
Our path is our destiny as human beings. What would have happened had Adam and Eve not eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? We must learn to live with doubt, with questioning and self-questioning.
Whether or not my words are heard, I feel compelled to share my accounting and recounting, now textured with a discerning honesty and judicious wisdom. That telling may enable attentive listeners to derive — however belatedly — insight, understanding, wisdom of their own. I can’t go back again, but perhaps I can help others find their way forward. That guidance is surely worth more than any worldly goods I can bestow. Rendering an account of my past allows me to fill my remaining days with meaning, consolidating what I have learned from a life lived.
Alice Shalvi , a feminist activist and social advocate, has lived in Israel since 1949. She is professor emerita of English literature at The Hebrew University, where she taught from 1950 until 1990. Among her numerous awards, she was given the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2007. Her memoir, Never a Native, was recently published.