Too Late Smart

willpennyby Jon N. Hall    11/3/14
In the movie western Will Penny (1968), Charlton Heston’s title character, an ageing cowboy, is thrown together with a young woman who has taken possession of the crude cabin he is to occupy while watching over the far reaches of his employer’s huge cattle ranch. When Will arrives at the cabin for his winter sojourn, Catherine, his squatter, has already taken up residence. But it’s gelid outside; Will can’t just turn her out into the cold. So they share the cabin, and in short order an attachment develops. When Catherine suggests it, Will considers taking up with her to go out West and homestead. But given their difference in age, Will doesn’t see how it can work, and he laments: “It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.”

Of all his films, Penny was Heston’s personal favorite. The bond between Will and Catherine is poignant. But Will ends it and rides off to continue his life as a lonely cowhand. Is he “too late smart” or just … too late?[pullquote]“We all get smarter as we get older. The trick is to get smart early enough to do yourself some good.”[/pullquote]

“Too late” are words that reverberate, and even haunt. Shakespeare’s Othello speaks them just before he murders his faithful wife. I don’t know the context, but mobster “Lucky” Luciano said: “It’s too late to be good.” With “too late,” a once bright future is no longer possible. It can be due to the way one has lived, or to one’s decisions, or to some tragic flaw in one’s character, but one runs out of time: it’s too late.

I don’t remember what they were selling, but a TV commercial a few years back contained a line that stuck with me and it went something like this: “We all get smarter as we get older. The trick is to get smart early enough to do yourself some good.”

Now that resonated, especially for an old coot. In today’s America, young people are kept from getting smart “early enough.” Childhood is stretched out for decades. There are “adult” Americans (well, at least they’re old enough to vote) who are hooked on video games, spectator sports, reality TV, and other diversions that keep them from examining their lives and growing up. Many of us spend much of our lives evading life.

Getting smart involves change. But many are torn about change. Oh change is fine for the other guy, but changing oneself, that’s not necessary. Some folks expect everyone else to change before they’ll even consider change for themselves. Despite all the blather about change 6-7 years ago, one wonders how amenable to change our Avatar of Change, B.H. Obama, is. He seems averse to change. Has our president ever changed one of his core ideas? Some would rather fundamentally change the entire system than shed any of their treasured ideas.

Getting smart “early enough” to get some benefit from it is difficult enough, but getting smart later in life can be monumentally difficult. If for years one has had a set of core beliefs, or been committed to some philosophy, or some political ism, examining those ideas can threaten one’s very identity. And then if one discards those ideas, one is set adrift. One needs a substitute, something else to believe in. That something else might just be the other: the ideas of those one has been demonizing for years. How unsettling.

The biggest impediment to getting smart is self. Another impediment is one’s friends and associates, who may shun or shame one for falling out of lockstep and getting off the reservation. One may need to seek out a whole new set of friends. How unsettling.

Past a certain point in life, the odds are that the die is cast, the stones are set, and one isn’t likely to change one’s philosophy and ideas. But there are notable exceptions. Several of today’s most outstanding conservatives used to be “liberals” (i.e. progressives) or even radical leftists. Yet, as old-timers these people were able to change. The most notable example of such change is probably David Horowitz, a “red diaper baby” from a communist enclave in New York City. The catalyst for change in Horowitz’s case was the murder of a friend. Such change involves questioning every one of one’s dearest beliefs; it involves taking oneself apart and putting the pieces back together with better glue. It’s an act of intellectual heroism.

We’re talking about wisdom, cowboys and cowgirls. Wisdom is getting in short supply in America. That may be because wisdom depends on other virtues that are also in short supply. Modesty is one of the virtues wisdom rests on; one must know what one doesn’t know. To attain wisdom, one must be able to recognize that one doesn’t know it all, and that others may have a more complete understanding. Honesty is also required for wisdom to develop. One precondition for the developing of wisdom that may not be as obvious as the others is that one’s higher allegiances must be to something greater than self. If one’s first commitment is to self, one is unlikely to become wise.

When folks near their dusty end, some get philosophical and reflective. They’ll think back on missed opportunities and regret that they’ve lived like certifiable idiots. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could have such a perspective at, say, the age of 30, when it would do us some good?

There’s nothing particularly insightful here, but these commonplaces have been forgotten, and are even derided in today’s oh-so-sophisticated America. Sometimes it seems that my generation, the Boomers, has screwed things up royally. Can we honestly say that we are leaving behind a better America for our kids? You might think about that when you vote on Tuesday.

I don’t know if it was wise for me to essay an essay on wisdom; what do I know? But if we average Americans don’t grow up a little, and fast, if we don’t get a little wisdom while the getting is good, we may soon find that it’s too late for America. Excuse me while I ride off into the sunset.
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (1686 views)

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20 Responses to Too Late Smart

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    There are “adult” Americans (well, at least they’re old enough to vote) who are hooked on video games, spectator sports, reality TV, and other diversions that keep them from examining their lives and growing up. Many of us spend much of our lives evading life.

    Indeed. But, of course, that is life as it has now been redefined, for better or for worse. Now that we are a post-meaning society, there is little left to do but twiddle.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    The ending of Will Penny may have been inspired by the ending of Shane. As for Luciano’s comment, perhaps it was based on the idea from a song in the soundtrack of the musical Oliver! (the play, not the movie) in which Bill Sikes concludes that it’s too late for him to go anywhere but Hell in the end, so he has no intention of turning away from his life of crime.

  3. Anniel says:

    What a wonderful piece, please don’t ride off into the sunset. You call change “an act of intellectual heroism.” I love that line and agree totally. If we just knew how to get people to examine their lives so they can be their own heroes.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    The catalyst for change in Horowitz’s case was the murder of a friend.

    Sadly, too often it is only tragedy which can make one realize one is on the wrong path. This is why many people who have experienced such tragedy, and as a result changed their life path, can find a positive in such tragedy.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This is the reality behind “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged.” When you have an ideology based on the denial of inconvenient reality (as is the case with liberalism), tragedies are effective at forcing people to confront reality and accept the fraudulence of their ideology. Rarely does anything short of that work.

  5. Rosalys says:

    “A little learning (or knowledge) is a dangerous thing!”

    Regretfully, being of an opinionated disposition, I, have been guilty of the “often wrong, but never in doubt” mentality in my younger days. (Another word for this is arrogance!) The cure each time has been to investigate a little deeper or gain the acquaintance of someone who knows more than I, to the point where I begin to see that in knowing more, the universe of what I don’t know expands exponentially!

    Fortunately, I was brought up in a politically conservative family so that I didn’t have the burden of a progressive mindset to overcome as well!

    I recently heard a sermon by a favorite Bible teacher in which he tells us not to view even the tragedies of life as ultimately tragic, because God uses these events to bring about good to His own glory – only God can bring life from death, joy from desolation, triumph from tragedy! He uses these events to get your attention. I wonder, is it a mark of one’s sensitivity just how big a catastrophe it takes to shock one back into reality?

    However, I also believe that as long as one still has breath it is never too late for the most important things.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Will Penny is one of those rare movies that doesn’t have the standard expected happy ending. And I think the movie would have worked had it gone either way. But I think Will knew himself well enough that he knew it wouldn’t have worked out. I don’t think he was afraid to try. I just think that he thought that sort of life was squarely behind him. It might be easy to forget that the West wasn’t necessarily conquered by home-bodies. A more domestic man might already have been quite domesticated.

    Past a certain point in life, the odds are that the die is cast, the stones are set, and one isn’t likely to change one’s philosophy and ideas.

    I’m wondering if no time in this history of man have people ever had their identities so tied to fad and fashion. It’s one thing to say that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. It’s implicit in the idea Thatcher stated, that “the facts of life are conservative.” There is a natural progression from idealistic nincompoop to wise and seasoned veteran, and it used to be an inevitable one, which is why most civilizations throughout time have honored (not dispensed with) the elderly.

    But our time is different. We have gone stark raving mad. We are heaved to and fro by the waves of cultural fads and fancy. One day gay marriage is unthinkable. The next it’s not only thinkable but to think otherwise is to brand one a bad person.

    This stormy sea of cultural foaming madness is now the primary factor for how people develop their identities. And that identity has little room for restrictions, introspection, or wisdom. That’s not a lament as much as it is simply a statement of fact. As William Murchison wryly notes in an article, we want:

    …life without pain, inconvenience, and undue suffering, marked by ethnic reconciliation, enduring peace, and steady increases in the minimum wage.

    What’s the new force that holds back the barest inclusion of reality? Well, one should not be too quick to underrate the religion/identity of Leftism. It promises its adherents acceptance and equality while allowing them to think of themselves as particularly intelligent and moral people — and all without having to do any real work but to spout platitudes. That natural progression from naive idealism to wise realism has been interrupted by what Dennis Prager deems “the world’s most dynamic religion.” This is one reason we see hippies and other red diaper doper babies clinging to beliefs that are extremely naive.

    Leftism is the new religion, and it’s one that has slipped in under the radar because it is a “secular” religion. It’s closely allied with materialism, atheism, and Marxism, all of which have declared themselves neutral in terms of ideology as a way to slip in under the radar. This is how you can end up with people who are highly zealous about their beliefs but do not think they are political or religious in the least.

    Leftism is a cult-like religion in that it f**ks with the mind in this and other ways. It’s hard to imagine a more intelligent or articulate person than David Horowitz, a particular hero of mine and a man who was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. And yet this man for decades could not see past the Religion of Leftism in which he was ensconced. As Jon noted, it took a murder of a friend for him to even consider another way to parse reality.

    It is unlikely that in the near future the red diaper doper babies will figure things out. Utopia is such a charming thought.


    I think this was a worthwhile essay, Jon. I wrote a short story once about a love affair doomed by the difference in ages (not modeled on Will Penny as it was the woman who was older), and the diminishing of opportunities with the passage of time is a theme worth exploring both in literature and philosophy. It’s often said of children that “they grow up so fast,” but that is exactly how it should be, and the extended adolescence encouraged by many forces in society today is extremely harmful. One has to wonder how many years, if not decades, will have to pass before Pajama Boy (the Progressive ideal) is ready to grow up, make his own health care decisions instead of relying on Big Brother, and actually man up and start a family instead of hanging around in his parents’ basement watching idiotic TV shows.

    Of course a society of perpetual adolescents, dependent on Big Brother forever, is exactly the hope of the Left – the last thing they want is adult citizens demanding their independence from central authority.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The progressive ideal isn’t Pajama Boy. It’s Pajama Boy and Julia — separately, of course (though they might easily be sexual acquaintances).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        though they might easily be sexual acquaintances

        Only if Julia decided to have a sex change operation and become Jules.


        Yes, I was thinking about Julia too but decided not to mention her – she’s creepier than Pajama Boy, when you come to think of it, because she never makes a move in her whole life that isn’t guided, directed, and funded by government.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          On the other hand, she doesn’t spend her whole life in her parents’ basement. And after all, we don’t know as much about Pajama Boy as we do about Julia.

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