The Seven Ages of Man

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote in “As You Like It” – a stage upon which, over the course of a lifetime, we each play many parts. Our roles change, Shakespeare suggested, depending on which “act” we’re starring in at the time.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at Shakespeare’s observations about “the seven ages of man” and see if they still make sense in terms of the way we now live our lives.

The First Age: Infancy

“At first the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”

We all begin the same way: We are completely dependent on others. To get what we need, we act on instinct. And instinct gives us two impulses: to smile and to cry. Cooing attracts people to us and makes them want to help us. Crying draws people to us by frightening and/or bothering them.

As we get older, we develop more sophisticated methods for getting what we want – but some people continue to fall back on these two infantile instincts.

I can see the difference in the way three people I work with persuade others to do their bidding:

RP is a very nice person, but he’s always got a sad face on. Ask him how he’s doing and he’ll tell you things could be better. He’s never bombastic. Never a braggart. He instinctively knows that wouldn’t work for him. Instead, he’s always ready to tell you about his troubles – and he does such a good job of it that you feel sorry for him and offer to help. RP is essentially a crybaby.

GP is jolly and upbeat – always ready with a smile and a story. He’s the ultimate guest, the world’s best drinking buddy. And he’s almost always there to help you out. When GP needs something, he seldom thinks about what he can do to deserve it. He simply warms you up with his talents and then he asks you for it. He doesn’t like to work hard and doesn’t see the need for it. Work’s not fun – and, as a cooer, GP is all about fun.

Then there’s MD.

MD is an intelligent, complicated guy. He’s as ready with a smile and a good word as GP is – but he’s not afraid of work. Far from it. He recognizes that to get what he wants, he has to be willing to give something that other people need. When things go bad for him, he’s not afraid to ask for help. Because he so seldom needs help, he gets it readily.

What about you? Think about the interpersonal skills you use to get what you need.

The Second Age: Youth

“And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel, / And shining morning face, / creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.”

We are not all resistant to getting an education, but so many are that it makes you wonder if schooling would be possible without force. At the Masterson home, curfews and homework were never optional. Following the tradition we grew up in, K and I set pretty strict standards for our boys. And we made sure they knew the rules:

No television. No video games. You have to come home directly  after school. You have to learn self-defense. And you have  to do your homework.

Until you are on your own, you can go out with friends only  one night a week. And if you return even one minute after  your curfew, there will be a price to pay.

When you get to college, you will have your tuition, room,  and board paid – but only if you maintain at least a B average.  The moment it drops to a B-, everything stops. You must  then pay your own rent, buy your own food, and pay your  own night-school tuition until you achieve straight A’s.

This has worked very well for us. But it hasn’t been easy. Going the tough-love route with your children often means having to deprive them of things you’d love to give them and giving them punishments you’d much rather ignore.

During the past 24 years, I’ve often wondered if we could have gotten away just as well with the laissez-faire (see Word to the Wise, below) approach so many of our friends have taken with their children. It would have been easier, but we’re not likely to change the routine. Number Three Son, a junior in high school this year, will have to put up with all the restrictions and demands his older brothers did. Not because we are sure that our way is the best way, but because he is too valuable a person to risk doing anything else.

The Third Age: Stepping Into Adulthood

“And then the lover / Sighing like a furnace, / with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.”

Here’s where the trouble begins. There is nothing as intensely pleasurable as young love. When you are caught in the throes of such passion, everything is wonderful. Even a stalled car on a rainy day seems like a marvelous thing.

If only that feeling could last. But it doesn’t. Time marches on and the mundane aspects of life creep back into your consciousness. Eventually, even the habits of your once-amazing lover seem mundane, even slightly irritating.

The secret to making love last, as all old lovers know, is to recognize that the basis of your first love was a delusion: the mistaken idea that you can get pleasure and meaning and satisfaction in life through the attentions of someone else.

Stepping into adulthood is more than just putting youthful fantasies behind. It’s discovering a new way to love – the kind of outward-seeking (some call it selfless, but that may be taking it too far) love that can last forever. And it’s not easy. In mid-life, we sometimes slip back into the delusion of romantic passion. And in loving selflessly, we sometimes suffer an attack of “What’s in this for me?”

Still, however many times you fail at love, the rewards are always waiting for you again. Love is an ever-present and equal opportunity phenomenon.

The Fourth Age: Beginning the Climb to the Top

“Then a soldier, / Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, / Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”

In civilian life, this is the period when we leave our romantic illusions behind and set out on a serious course of making a living, raising a family, and achieving our goals. For most of us, this starts in our late twenties or early thirties. For some of us, it comes much later.

This is an exciting time of life when many good things can happen. If you are in this stage now, you may find yourself occasionally making the same mistakes Shakespeare warns against. You may find that it’s sometimes hard to stay humble and too easy to

It’s not easy to maintain a cordial demeanor and avoid making enemies as you climb your way to the top, but it can be done. By adding gratefulness to the other interpersonal skills you’re developing during this period, you’ll be doubly blessed.

The Fifth Age: The Achievement of Success

“And then the justice, / In fair rounded belly with good capon lin’d, / With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, / Full of wise saws and modern instances; / And so he plays his part.”

This is a nice age to get to. I’m happy to report that this is where I see myself right now. Having both financial independence and the knowledge that if I died tomorrow I’d have accomplished some of my major goals, I feel lucky. And I also feel – I must admit – that I’m the victim of a certain cosmic justice, as Shakespeare implies.

Shakespeare is speaking ironically here, as he often does. In this age, Shakespeare understands, we are often tempted by pomposity. I’d like to say that I have been immune to the benefits of material success. But I haven’t. And I can’t resist crowing now and then. As an ETR reader, you enjoy the sometimes questionable benefits of my proclivity for wise saws and modern instances.

The trick to making the fifth age work – I’m learning – is to resist the temptation to take yourself seriously. And to keep working on that belly – even if, as Shakespeare noted, it does want to be fair rounded.

The Sixth Age: The “Golden” Years

“The sixth age shifts / Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, / With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, / His youthful hose well sav’d a world too wide / For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, / Turning again toward childish treble, pipes / And whistles in his sound.”

I’m actually looking forward to the sixth age. I’m going to stay physically young and mentally strong for as long as possible and Al Sears and Jon Herring assure me that I’ll be able do everything I ever did in my twenties for another 15 years.

But I recognize that nature will eventually have her way. Sometime in my seventies, I’m going to accept my failing physique – even perhaps a shrunk shank (Perish the thought!) – and hopefully be happy with a less vigorous existence.

Looking at this age from my current perspective, what I’d most like to achieve is a sort of dignified decay. I wont be able to carry around 190 pounds of muscle on my frame any longer, but at least I can drape myself in well-cut clothes. And I may not be able to wrestle, but I should be able to dance.

The Seventh Age: The Final Years

“Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Well, what can be said about this stage?

That we all want the same thing from it. We’d like to live healthy and pain-free till eighty or ninety and then close our eyes and go to sleep. But if the end is protracted – if we do, as Shakespeare says, have to spend some time in “second childishness” – then it would be good to be cared for by loved ones.

This isn’t a popular notion. The idea of family responsibility for the elderly has largely been abandoned. Senior citizens are supposed to take care of themselves. And if they can’t, the government is supposed to step in.

A pathetic situation.

A naturally good life – as Shakespeare pointed out – is meant to have balance. You begin naked and helpless. And you end up that way again. The child is taken care of by his parents. When the child becomes an adult, he gets the chance to repay them.

Too often, today, this natural order becomes unbalanced. Parents neglect children. Children abandon parents. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]