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What does this quote by Oscar Wilde actually mean?

"The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young"

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10 Answers 10

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So far nobody has hit quite the right note on the quote. I would parse it this way:

Life is short, and nothing brings that home like reflecting on how little we have seen and done at the point when time is impatiently hurrying us off the stage. The tragedy is that we haven't really lived what we estimate to be full, long lives; for most, decline and death come way too soon.

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    sobs quietly into hands
    – Mitch
    Jun 5 '15 at 17:14
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    @Mitch: That's right. It's a profoundly sad observation.
    – Robusto
    Jun 5 '15 at 19:34
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    So much to do; ... Jun 5 '15 at 22:18
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    Or put another way, "No one looking back on his or her life is likely to say, regretfully, 'I wish I'd spent more time on English Language & Usage.'"
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 6 '15 at 22:37
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    @SvenYargs: Is that a reference to this answer on Meta of mine?
    – Robusto
    Jun 7 '15 at 2:37
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It is the difference between the physical infirmity of age, and the mental desires that still exist. The giving up of cherished activities before we want to. The exclusion (or dismissal) by youth when we still wish to be included. The knowledge that one is reaching one's conclusion when there is still so much that we want to see and do.

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The tragedy of old age is not that someone is old (in age), but that one is young (in experience)

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Wilde's referring, firstly, to the fact that we almost always feel younger than we are and than we look, past middle age at least. It's a realization that hits when, for example, we catch sight of some old soul reflected in a shop window and then realize that it's actually us. Also, as we get older and hopefully wiser, we gain a sense of perspective that often lets us to wear life more lightly than we did when we were younger. As Bob Dylan said, "Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now." The tragedy Wilde describes is that the exterior inevitably ages and, no matter the age we may feel, there's no way to turn back time or have it reflect how old we are in our heads.

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Age is seen as a label. Seniors have more time to try new things as they get older because they have more time to do so. They are able to stay "young at heart" by developing new interests and passions and keeping busy after retirement. Others see older people as old, but they see themselves as young.

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    I'm not old, I've just been young a lot longer than you lot have!"
    – David Pugh
    Jun 5 '15 at 17:26
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The concept of old age is something only one that perceives themselves as young experiences.

Thinking that your life will deteriorate with age is common amongst young people. That doesn't have to be the case. It becomes the case because that is what you expect. That is the tragedy.

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I see this line from a different perspective.

I think this line states the mismatch of the physical and mental age, but I interpret this as being young physically and old mentally not vice versa.

I don't know from which age he was carrying this basis/feelings/experience to formulate it in words. Depending on from which age he carried this idea phrase changes its meaning changes dramatically.

I am more prone to this explanation as he wrote this in age of 37, which imho is not the age to feel old.

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At any (time) point in one's life they are both older than they were the day before and younger than they will be the day after. The tragedy is to identify with being old when it is just as valid, and likely much more enjoyable, to identify with being young.

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    – Hugh
    Aug 13 '15 at 7:28
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I believe it means that in old age, one has to face the memory of one's own youth. The knowledge that one was young is the knowledge that one is young (once). Never to be gained again.

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  • "And last, the rending pain of re-enactment Of all that you have done, and been; the shame Of motives late revealed, and the awareness Of things ill done and done to others’ harm Which once you took for exercise of virtue."
    – David Pugh
    Jun 5 '15 at 17:25
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I would agree with Zan700. In order to reach old age, you must once have had to be young. The 'tragedy' referred to, is that in old age, we remember only too well what we were in our youth - young, agile, and smooth-skinned. You cannot be old without having first been young, I'm pretty sure Oscar Wilde appreciated the beauty of youth, and its loss in old age. My mother held the reverse opinion. If people complained about how old they were getting, she would remind them that "it's better than not growing old" (an early death).

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