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Your Heart Shouldn’t Be Getting Harder As You Go

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The old joke—which dates back to the 1870s—is that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re still a liberal when you’re older, you have no brain. Now we can put any partisan beliefs aside and see how this is at least partly true.

When you’re young, it’s easy to believe in the inherent goodness of the world because you haven’t actually experienced any of it yet. You are naive. It’s easy to think that everything should be very simple and always fair in that phase of your life. But as you get older, you realize that the world is more complicated, and in fact that there is often a lot of wisdom and necessity in the mas morium—the way of your elders. A settling into a kind of conservatism as you age and experience life is reasonable and probably smart.

However, it should be obvious that this remark is also totally and completely wrong. Yes, it’s easy to believe in ideals when you are young, and yes it’s harder to maintain that idealism when you are older, but that is sort of the point: life isn’t about getting more selfish and colder as you go. What kind of life would that even be?

What the Stoics would say is that time will steadily reveal to you that there is such a thing as evil. That equality of opportunity will never result in equality of outcome, except at catastrophic cost to all. But if you watch carefully, you should also see something else that time steadily reveals: How much we all have in common. How connected we all are. How being kind and generous to others is the most rewarding thing you can do.

Life exposes us to the truth of Marcus’s line that “what injures the hive injures the bee.” That what goes around comes around. That while we can’t let our hearts bleed for everything and every person outside of our control, allowing our hearts to harden is equally wrong.

The point is to have a head and heart always—to be an idealist when it’s easy, but to stick to those ideals even when you see how painfully short reality measures up compared to them. Being lucky enough to continue to live on this planet should not be accompanied by cynicism and coldness.