David Carlson: Confession time

Our culture emphasizes the challenges that come with aging more than its benefits. Of course, as we age, there are activities we can no longer excel in and new health issues to contend with, but aging offers treasures for those who pursue them.

Wisdom is one of those treasures, but wisdom is not like grey hair or wrinkles. Wisdom is not a certainty with age, but a possibility.

This summer, when rereading one of my favorite authors, Norman Maclean, I felt I was being offered a seminar in aging with wisdom. Norman Maclean may not be a familiar name, but you might know one of his books, “A River Runs through It,” which was made into a successful movie a few decades ago.

This summer, I reread his other notable book, “Young Men and Fire.” I rarely read a book a second time, but I reread this book because I had a strong feeling that, the first time I read it, I missed much of what Maclean was striving to explain. That isn’t because Maclean’s writing is heavy reading. Rather, I was middle-aged, not old enough to understand what the book is about.

I now see that my experience with “Young Men and Fire” mirrors Maclean’s own experience in writing it. Maclean wrote both this book and “A River Runs through It” after he retired from college teaching. Maclean didn’t wait until retirement to write because he’d been too busy before. Instead, Maclean states that both books had to wait until he was old and courageous enough to face the pain of the past without looking away.

In “A River Runs through It,” Maclean looks back to the mystery of his family. It is the story of two brothers raised in the same home with the same stern but loving parents, a family devoted to fly-fishing in Montana rivers. If a person appreciates fly-fishing, the book offers some of the most beautiful descriptions of this art, for it is an art more than a sport. The central story, however, is painful, as it explores how one brother (Norman) went on to a long career in academia while the other brother (Paul) died young, a murder victim.

In “Young Men and Fire,” Maclean looks back to the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, a fire in the rugged terrain of Montana that took the lives of thirteen young “smokejumpers.” The firefighters, boys more than men, parachuted onto a fire that blew up, turned on them, and destroyed their dreams and lives in less than 30 minutes.

Maclean was a superb writer, and as such, he never allowed even a hint of sentimentality into his writing. Yet, I know of no other author who ventured as deeply into the inner life of men, either at the moment of their deaths or, as in the case of Maclean himself, when a man is finally old and wise enough to make sense of the past.

Maclean’s genius and wisdom lie in understanding that there are mysteries in life, mysteries such as the sudden death of a brother or of 13 confident young smokejumpers. These mysteries demand something of us as human beings. For Maclean, catastrophes in the past await the older and wiser person who isn’t satisfied with “I guess we’ll never understand why that happened” or “We can’t question God’s will.”

Wisdom, as Maclean reveals in these two books, has nothing to do with finding a silver lining in the pain of the past. What Maclean believes we owe the victims is to seek to understand the human tragedy that underlies the catastrophic. Maclean never blames; he never looks for scapegoats; he can even accept that the tragedy might have been unavoidable given the circumstances at the time. But Maclean believes we owe the victims and those who loved them the truth—the truth of what happened, the truth of who it happened to, and the truth of what it was like for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

In all our pasts, there are painful moments that we can neither fix nor forget, but with courage, we can understand. That is Norman Maclean’s wisdom.