Not long ago, a dear friend of ours, Sherri Russell, lost her husband, Jeff, who was far from old, just 58. As is typical of a giving person, she asked me if I’d like to come over and look through some of his books, for she knew we had a similar love of history, and she wanted his things to first go to the people he knew.
“Take the books that interest you,” she told me. “As many or as few as you want,” she added, as I headed up her narrow stairwell.
Aware that I have no shortage of books of my own — an understatement if there ever is one — I decided to show a bit of self-control and choose only a few titles. After all, my shelves are filled, and despite several waves of aggressive reorganization and boxing and selling, towers of them are beginning to appear in my cabin’s corners again.
After I’d padded about a while in the room where Jeff had stacked and stowed his collection—always with the intent of organizing it better when he had the time, a promise I have made many times to myself — I picked up just a few of the books, among them a biography of Harry Truman that I already have but want to share with a friend, two old, old high school annuals, and a wonderful account of Teddy Roosevelt’s epic safari to Africa in 1909.
I selected a nice copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” too, for it is among my favorite books, and I can rarely pass one up. On an inside page inscription, I saw it had been given as a gift in 1916; it probably cost a half-dollar then. I plan to read that book when the weather turns colder, on a windy night perhaps when the snow and my blankets are both piled high.
As I showed Sherri what I had chosen, and explained why, she understandably teared up a bit. I told her that I already had most of the books Jeff had collected about Abraham Lincoln, but that I had specific reasons for wanting what I took, and I appreciated why he had wanted those books too.
“He was an old soul,” Sherri said, and I think I knew what she meant. To me, it is one of the greatest compliments she could have given to a man who collected things, dusty novels and aged photographs, decrepit letters and musty scrapbooks, items that in many instances would not have appealed to most other people.
Despite having a bit of age in my own bones, I have to say that referring to someone as having an old soul has little to do with just the passing of the years. I can’t say I’ve devoted a lot of time researching the term, but more than one source suggests that it probably originated with the very old English nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole,” that dates back before it was ever included in a collection of verse, William King’s “Useful Transactions in Philosophy” in 1708.
Of course, in the song (there are two sets of lyrics), Old King Cole was “a merry auld soul,” a man who seemed to be more than satisfied with the simple pleasures of his bowl and pipe and a trio of fiddlers, and that seems to be at least one definition of an old soul: a person who often seems to be wise beyond their years, who values quality over quantity, and is more than happy with just a few creature comforts. I imagine an old soul tires easily of the unnecessary daily drama that seems to be dominating our lives these days too.
There is plenty to be found, mostly online, about old souls, much of it in the form of inspirational memes and pop culture references to people who claim to have lived previous lives, but despite a lack of any scientific evidence that there is such a thing, I think we all probably know an old soul or two ourselves. Over the years as a teacher, I encountered a lot of young old souls, so, to me, respect and politeness, good manners, and an ease and comfort with older people are also attributes of their kind.
I should have mentioned earlier in this story that Jeff was a giving person, a volunteer, a counselor, and a friend to a lot of people. Typical of old souls, those characteristics, hopefully, will never go out of style and are sorely needed even more in an age where civility seems be dying year by year.
Not long ago, I wrote a story about Max Ehrmann, the gentle spirit of a poet who penned “Desiderata” nearly a century ago; he often gave copies of it away at Christmastime and seemed content that it was admired and wanted by his friends. Through my research, I came to admire Ehrmann’s personal journal, something he kept off and on for nearly 20 years.
In one entry, he wrote: “Like a team of horses running away, mankind seems to be going nowhere in particular at tremendous speed.”
Spoken like a true old soul.