If a five year old can play Bach piano concertos we call them a prodigy. But if that same five year old can weave out velvety heart aching blues as though Ella were singing Summertime through their fingers we call them an old soul. The moniker isn’t reserved for startlingly gifted child musicians but they are one of the most obvious and illustrative examples.
We’ve all met or encountered those rare individuals who just seem attuned to a grander font of perception and wisdom than regular people. The one friend who always seems able to calmly see directly to the heart of a matter, the artist able to create works which evoke universal and timeless truths, the performer who is able to convey depth and nuance of emotion far beyond what one might expect of them.
We associate wisdom, stability, and clarity of perception with age and accumulated experience which is why we are somewhat shocked and unsettled when such traits appear in those seemingly too young. We reconcile this by calling them an ‘old soul’ implying the soul inside is much older than the body containing it, either as a sideways nod to the concept of reincarnation or an assumption the person has been through a great deal very early in life.
An old soul can certainly be forged by the impacts of trauma. Far more people wind up facing incredibly painful and damaging experiences very early in life than we would wish, and those who manage survive the crucible of it can emerge strengthened and changed and aged. But having an old soul does not require hardship. Sometimes it can simply be with a person from birth.
I have been referred to as an old soul fairly frequently in my life. I could point to the experience of spending my formative years closeted after realizing I was gay at age eleven in a time and place where it would not have been well received. Or I could point to being the unusual kind of eleven year old who puts that kind of math together then sets about planning strategies for how I was going to approach my life so I could be both true to myself and be safe.
Whether we want to attribute them to genetic behavioral predisposition or to environmental molding or if we…