Chapter 76 – You Are Old, Father William

When people are born they are gentle and soft.
At death they are hard and stiff.
When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.
When they die, they wither and dry up.
Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.
The gentle and soft are the followers of life. 

Thus, if you are aggressive and stiff, you won’t win.
When a tree is hard enough, it is cut. Therefore
The hard and big are lesser,
The gentle and soft are greater.

 Translated by Charles Muller (2011)

I have come to understand that this is a difficult chapter to translate, and various translations I have read use differing words and images.  All of them, though, convey the sense that all things begin life as something soft, tender, gentle and flexible, only to become stiff and hard as they age and eventually die.  Charles Muller’s translation expresses the concept well without any superfluous language, so it was chosen for this essay.

You Are Old, Father William

You Are Old, Father William

Even though the work of translation may be difficult here, the concept expressed is neither difficult nor new.  It can be tied back to chapters like Chapter 6 which praises the receptiveness of the Divine Feminine or to Chapters 10 and 36 in which I referred to the art of tai chi ch’uan to illustrate the power that comes from the gentle and supple movements of the internal martial arts.

A further discussion of the concept might include the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:3 that unless “ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”; or in Matthew 5:5 that “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”  It might also include further discussion of the treasure of humility highlighted in Chapter 67.  Instead, though, I am going to offer for consideration “You Are Old, Father William,” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which goes: 

“‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

“‘In my youth,’ Father William replied to his son,
‘I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

“‘You are old,’ said the youth, ‘as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –
Pray, what is the reason of that?’

“‘In my youth,’ said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
‘I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

“‘You are old,’ said the youth, ‘and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –
Pray how did you manage to do it?’

“‘In my youth,’ said his father, ‘I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.’

“‘You are old,’ said the youth, ‘one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –
What made you so awfully clever?’

“‘I have answered three questions, and that is enough,’
Said his father; ‘don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!’”

First, let us consider the context of this poem.  Alice has fallen in the rabbit hole and found things to be different than they were in her normal world.  She has just met a caterpillar who is trying to learn what kind of a being she is.  She tells the caterpillar that she has been unable to remember many things since she entered Wonderland, so he asks her to recite “You Are Old, Father William.”  He was actually asking that she recite a poem by one Robert Southey entitled “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.”  That poem, which is set out in a footnote here*, was generally memorized by Victorian school children, and it begins, “’You are old, Father William,’ the young man cried/’The few locks which are left you are grey.”  When Alice had completed her version, the caterpillar told her, “That is not said right.”  Alice replied, “Not quite right, I’m afraid.  Some of the words have got altered.”  The caterpillar responded “decidedly,” “It is wrong from beginning to end.”

Alice’s poem is relevant here for two reasons.  First, it shows Alice as a gentle, soft child, unsure who she has become; but still possessing the mental agility to respond to an unexpected request** in a somewhat reasonable manner.

More importantly, though, it presents a nice juxtaposition of youth and old age.  Father William’s son seems to have developed certain rigid ideas of how his parent should look and act and think in old age, while Father William, himself, has kept an agile mind and a flexible approach that keep him involved in life rather than death like the Father William in Southey’s poem.

Of course, death is a part of life; and it is the Way of Nature and Tao that a fragile shoot is supposed to become a large, solid tree – even though it is then more likely to be cut down or more susceptible to breaking rather than bending in a storm.  I can tell you from personal experience that muscles stiffen and cramp after a hard workout, even though I kid myself that I remain youthful – and it didn’t used to be that way.

Death and age, then, cannot be avoided; and the sage does not suggest that they can.  Rather, we should take from this chapter what seemed most important in the previous one – life should be for living.  To remain open and flexible, agile in mind and body, gentle and soft in approaching life are the keys to living in Tao.


*The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them
By Robert Southey

‘You are old, father William,’ the young man cried,
‘The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.’ 

‘In the days of my youth,’ father William replied,
‘I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And Abus’d not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last.’ 

‘You are old, father William,’ the young man cried,
‘And pleasures with youth pass away.
And yet you lament not the days that are gone;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.’ 

‘In the days of my youth,’ father William replied,
‘I remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought of the future, whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.’ 

‘You are old, father William,’ the young man cried,
‘And life must be hast’ning away;
You are cheerful and love to converse upon death;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.’ 

‘I am cheerful, young man,’ father William replied,
‘Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God.
And He hath not forgotten my age.’


**  I am reminded of a time when I was in college and attending a concert at Tulagi’s, a popular club on the Hill in Boulder, Colorado.  For some reason, before the concert began, a man at the next table was remarking rather loudly that he wanted the girl he was with to hear a recitation of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by Robert W. Service.  Fortunately, I had memorized that one and was able to help him out.  Oh, some of the words may have been slightly altered, but the man had consumed a little too much beer and was himself too altered to notice.




  1. Charlie, our yellow lab, is 84 years old, and ever since he was a puppy it has been very clear to us that he is a human being in a dog suit. Now, after long, full lives more in line with Lewis Carroll’s Father William than Southey’s, Charlie and I share those aches and pains you mention and our suits are worn and getting old. Yet give us the extra time to get up and follow us on our walk and you’ll most likely see a moment or two when we gambol together like a boy and a dog out with their best friend – the one in the angel suit, who also gambols, but with more grace and gentility – and be inclined to ask us all, “Pray tell me the reason for that?”

    Well, you nailed it. Life should be for living. If we live life engaged and immersed in it, seeking happiness, seeking wholeness, and we stay engaged and never give up the search and keep on keeping on, making mistakes, falling down, learning, getting back up and going on, getting out there into the heart and brain and gut of it – well, the whole experience just naturally teaches us how to remain open and flexible, agile in mind and spirit. As for the body, well that’s a different continuum, part of the things which have a season. And while the local mind follows the body eventually, the universal mind is eternally present, and the spirit that is in us is always there.

    Southey’s Father William reminded me of the poem “Base Details” by Sigfried Sassoon, who was one of the great WWI poets. It speaks to the pitiless waste of war and the world-turned-upside-down there, twisted into an environment where the good die young and those who are ignorant and unconscious of the evil they accommodate “speed glum heroes up the line to death.”

    Southey’s Father William seems the sort who would, like Sassoon’s Majors, keep themselves safely out of the fray, conserving and preserving their lives and energies for an old age which proves to be empty. The Major has come to be nothing more than a puffy, petulant face guzzling and gulping in the best hotels and toddling safely home to die in bed – having never really lived. They stayed out of the fray, remained distant, and their own disengagement and removal produced an empty sum at the end of their life.

    I’d say it’s better to come to old age being able to say “been there, done that,” than to arrive there saying “meant to go there, meant to do that” and realizing it would have been better to do it as the daily subject of our lives rather than set it aside as the future object, something to be done later after we run the gamut we are told we must. Better to listen to the universe as far as I’m concerned, and be driven down the path of life by spiritual distress, in search of truth, than be driven through the city by the local distresses and fear-based coercions employed there.

    I think it’s best to come to that time and listen to that voice which starts us on our true path, the voice that rises up and rings with truth when it says, “Somewhere out on that horizon, faraway from the neon sky, I know there must be somethin’ better, and I can’t stay another night…” (Eagles, “In The City”)

    Here’s another Eagles lyric: “I don’t understand why you don’t treat yourself better (and) do the crazy things that you do … Did you do it for love? Did you do it for money? Did you do it for spite? Did you think you had to, honey?”

    I think it’s better to have asked and answered those questions on our life path, on our way out to that place beyond the horizon, than to be confronted with them still unanswered in old age.

    I’m not an advocate for the self loathing aspect of the individual world view which holds that it’s better to live hard and die young and leave a beautiful corpse behind; nor do I support the self-destructive ways which many think are part of the path which observes that it’s better to burn out than to fade away – but I am a supporter of the healthy principle at the core of these views. It’s better to live than not live, to be engaged rather than removed to a safe distance, to learn and grow rather than remain ignorant and small.

    After all, as you say, Life is for Living.
    PS: We are “Looking East” from our northwest mountains and are headed toward a place near the heart of the beast “where power and position are equated with the voice of God” – Palm Beach, Florida. Lenore’s folks live nearby, and we are going there to help them out with a few things, not a vacation so much as a working holiday. My online time will be curtailed, but I’ll try to stay in touch, if only to avoid withdrawal symptoms from your commentary here, which has become a natural part of my “normal” (broad and generous use of the term) day. I told Lenore I was going to buy three 16-packs of Charmin and then TP my way south from Rush Limbaugh’s digs until I hit Mar-a-Lago or got busted, whichever came first. She just smiled and said, “Now Honey, we talked about that.” And I said, “Oh. Yeah. Well, heck… OK Honey, I’ll be good.”

    She’s not worried about me getting arrested, she’s bailed me out before. And she’s certainly not against the idea. She just knows that if I do it I’ll screw up the rotator cuff on my aged, worn-out, geezer pitching arm even more than it already is.

    I’m designing the launcher now.

  2. PPS: Mar-a-Lago is actually to the north in that god-forsaken land. It’s just that in my mind’s eye the ocean is supposed to be west. I know what I’m doing, and I know you will represent me well in the upcoming legal proceedings.

    • There are certain things that are immutable, but cannot be adequately explained. The force of gravity comes to mind; and the reality that the longer a person spends in this world, the more certain it is that he or she will be summoned to Florida. Cathy and I are going to be down there in just a few weeks.

      Cathy’s brother, Steve, and his wife, Cindy, just moved to the Ft. Myers area. Cindy’s parents lived there. They recently passed away, so instead of selling their house, Steve and Cindy decided to move and not deal with another Polar Vortex in Ohio. Cindy’s sister lives next door. Cathy’s mother is going to spend 2-3 months with Steve and Cindy – again because of the Polar Vortex (which Cathy’s mother was not worried about nearly so much as her kids were). Cindy’s brother and his wife have been doing missionary work in China for several decades, but they, too, will be in Ft. Myers in December.

      It seemed the least that we could do was heed the inexorable call to Florida and join them all for a few days. Our son, Michael, is living in China until next summer; and our daughter, Suzanne and her family will be here Colorado. However, we plan to set up a Skype session to have everyone “together” for an early holiday celebration.

      Our dog, Darcy, is not quite 3 in people years – so about 20 in dog years – and our grandson, Ryder, is about 0.8 in people years. I spend time with both of them nearly every day. They each have bodies that are much more free and agile than mine. Their minds, too, are more open and growing than mine – though I am more willing to alter my schedule than either of them. Companions such as those help me to focus on living.

      By the way, I do not plan to visit Rush Limbaugh, but I am told that Willard Scott still appears on TV from Fort Myers to wish happy birthdays to centenarians. That seems more worthwhile than anything Rush Limbaugh has done (except for his fundraising for blood cancer treatment and research), so I will not even be tempted to purchase Costco-like quantities of Charmin.

  3. Hello, you two.

    I was thinking that the first rendition was preferable, although I really liked both versions of the poem. I have met a few people that do seem to deny old age like the William of the first poem. To me, that sort of guy is represented by the Fool in the tarot deck. As for the second William, he seems like someone I would very much like to know.

    As for TPing your way down to FL, I am all over that. Of course, you must be sure and take care of that rotator cuff but, as you say, life is to be lived and that seems like a good adventure.

    I will ALSO be in Florida this winter. Last year, my best friend moved to a town near Tampa called Largo. I will be staying with her for a week just after Christmas and through New Year. If either of you will be anywhere near that area, let me know and we can meet for coffee.

    • See, Amy, you, too, have received that inexorable summons to Florida. It is hard to explain the lure of the place. You get down there and see people walking what seems dangerously close to a very large alligator, and wonder if it’s safe. Getting closer, you see it is actually one of those large Florida cockroaches; and you still wonder if it’s safe. Be all that as it may, I have spent some enjoyable times on the Atlantic coast and in the Keys, as well as Disney World (when the kids were younger). I have not been to the Tampa area, but I expect you will find it a pleasant and enjoyable place. I will back in Colorado by the time you get to Florida, so I am afraid I will miss seeing you.

      Come to think of it, I’ll bet old Father William – at least Alice’s Father William – would enjoy a Florida vacation for the holidays.

  4. PS. I would be tempted to TP my own way down there to test to see if our TP paths had crossed, but I don’t think that airlines take too kindly to stunts like that. Just sayin’.

  5. It has been far too long since I read Lewis Carroll. My boys and I were just talking about it, and we just picked up the cartoon movie of Alice’s Adventures – to give us a little taste of it, until they’re old enough for the book. My dad still quotes The Jabberwocky, and my boys do too.

    I found your site via Amy’s and am a big fan of her writing, and the community she develops through her blog.

    • Liesl, I am sorry for the delay in responding to your comments – but it was Break Week.

      I agree that Amy works hard to develop a sense of cyber-community. I have read your blog a few times as a result of going to Amy’s site. You have a good perspective on things. Keep it up, and enjoy Alice.

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