There once was a Time not so very long ago when, across cultures and across traditions, the elders, the Old Ones of the People, were held in the highest regard, respected and valued for their knowledge, insight, and decades of Life experience. This was before advertisers had succeeded in convincing us to embrace all things young- the bright, the shiny, the smooth, the new. Today, in this regard it seems, old has become synonymous with worn-out.
Make no mistake- not every mature member of societies past carried transcendent wisdom or had access to the Secrets of The Universe. For some, it was enough that they had accumulated a lifetime of experience and were magna cum laude graduates of the School Of Hard Knocks. These venerated seniors typically enjoyed reputations as hard workers in their youth who generally were kind, patient and observant, very often irreverent and, on occasion, subject to joyous bouts of childlike silliness. Even if they couldn’t tell you the meaning of Life, they usually could tell you how to live a Life that had meaning.
Our elders are disappearing.
Owing to advancements in modern Western medicine and despite the corporate provender industry’s most heartfelt and diligent efforts to the contrary, we now have a population with a greater percentage and sheer number of aged citizens than ever in recorded history. Statistically speaking, elders should be anything but a vanishing class. In a search for the disappearing elders, however, it is not quantity that is the issue, it is quality. Though we have more people of advanced age, where we are found wanting is in actual elders. An elder is more than just the sum of their years. These days, instead of elders, we just have a lot more old folks.
So where have all the elders gone? Have they faded away, casualties of the aforementioned propagandist oligarchy that so graciously tells us what what we want, where to find it, and how much we will happily pay for it? To a point, yes; the full might of Madison Avenue’s juvenescence-lauding leviathan is indeed persuasive. Due to the omnipresent saturation of the young-is-best message, so many contemporary seniors cling (almost to the point of absurdity) to their youth. Overpriced and overpowered cars, the surgeon’s scalpel, make-up and hair dye, designer clothes and all manner of potion and (in the case of Botox®) poison are symptomatic of a rejection of the natural order of things and the cycles of Life.
(To be clear on a very important point: there is a marked difference between being youthful and trying desperately to stay young; one is a viable strategy while the other is nothing more than a cosmetic band-aid. To be youthful is to acknowledge and accept the reality of things as they are while seeking to maximize the potential of things as they can be. This can, of course, involve nutrition and exercise and all sorts of efficacious strategies that seek to expand the quality, the joy, and even the duration of Life. The difference is found in the acceptance of the state of things and the intent with which these things are considered and addressed. Trying to remain forever young is the mark of one who is little more than a chronologically advanced adolescent. Just as two objects cannot occupy the same space, it is not possible to abide in the delusion of youth uninterrupted and simultaneously accept the challenges and responsibilities of an elder.)
Although the machinations of Madison Avenue are legion, the progressive disappearance of our most well-seasoned demographic has yet another and far more powerful agent at its source that is twofold in its makeup, characterized by attrition on the one hand and a self-absorbed inadequacy on the other.
Firstly, our longest lived echelon is simply dying off. The ranks of what has come to be called The Greatest Generation find their numbers dwindling steadily with each passing day. Death is inevitable and natural and there is nothing about its effects that adds anything new to the topic presently under consideration. This points us to the second and more troubling aspect of the case: those who are passing on are not being replaced at a proportional scale.
The rising generation of would-be elders either, in their attempts to maintain a death grip on their fading youth, reject entirely their status as seniors or, as a foregone conclusion, thinking that the world owes them something, expect to be esteemed as elders solely by right of succession.
To be considered an elder requires meeting qualifications more rigorous than simply having managed to avoid dying for the longest time. Incubated in the hothouse of instant gratification, many of today’s emergent elders lacked the discipline, patience, and accountability in their youth that is required to forge and temper a rich character and abiding insight. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re wise. The current senior class gives strong evidence of this verity.
For the members of the aged class that actually seek to embrace the status of elder, many are generally seated on either end of a less than august spectrum, with one extreme populated by the power-hungry (personified stereotypically by politicians and plutocrats) and the other occupied by the “powerless” that wait (as they have for all of their lives) for someone to tell them what to do or, better yet, to just do it for them.
The quality of an elder has a direct correlation to the quality of that elder’s youth. Perhaps the most important point distinguishing today’s senior citizen from elders of the past is that yesterday’s matriarchs and patriarchs respected their elders. The current crop of ascendant “elders” were, in their youth, the first generation that exhibited a wholesale brazen and undisguised contempt for THEIR elders, rejecting their experience and wisdom as unnecessary, out of touch, or just plain “not cool, man.” Now, they are the ones for whom respect and regard is in short supply. Karma swims quite comfortably in the waters of irony…
While dignity for all should be a given, respect is something that must be earned. Elders of yore were respected because they were WORTHY of that respect. Certainly, not all of today’s children of the ‘60s and ‘70s find themselves now numbered among the ineffectual; some paid attention in their youth and got it right the first time, others became aware of their impetuous and impudent proclivities in sufficient time to make adjustments. Sadly, far too many did not. As a society we have arrived at a Time in our history when we MOST need the wisdom and guidance of well-regarded and highly-respected elders. Communities are pitched one against the other and outright battle lines are being drawn. If we are to remain strong and viable as a People, this course cannot stand uncorrected.
So what needs to happen? Will the incoming senior class somehow find a way to manifest in their golden years that for which they never adequately prepared in their youth? This is certainly possible for a few but, for the greater portion, not likely. What, then, are we to do?
It is undeniable that the load which will of necessity be shouldered by the thinning number of genuine elders will be onerous. But, like their antecedents, they, too, will persevere. Perseverance is the mark of an elder. As for reinforcements, it is doubtful that any will arrive in sufficient quantity from the ranks of the as yet to mature fully 50-somethings. Yet, while the situation may appear dire, it is not irremediable. Paradoxically, our hope lies with the most unlikely of champions: the young.
It is not unheard of for children to care for their parents as those parents age. Today’s youth are after a similar fashion being asked to bear the standard while they are still young and onward further still into their own golden years. It’s not fair to have to pull double duty. It is, however, necessary.
I speak now directly to the Millennials and to the members of Generation X who are not yet too far gone down the path clearcut by the Lost Ones- if there are those among you who will persist through the onslaught of our exponentially advancing and distracting technologies, considering and acting with a regard for the future rather than for just the moment, ignoring the urgings of the mandarins who seek only to bolster the status quo and further entrench their own shortsighted and self-serving status, if you will recognize that it is entirely possible to be self-interested without being self-absorbed or self-obsessed, if you can do all of these things now and in the decades to come, then all is not lost.
The waxing tide of partisan divisions (political and otherwise) must be supplanted by mutually agreed-upon outcomes rather than methodologies. The temptation to be right rather than satisfied is both alluring and insinuating; don’t fall victim to this folly as so many others before you have. If you are unsure of the gravity of my warning, just look around you and witness the plight of those you are now being asked to bolster and, ultimately, replace.
It took the better part of three generations for us to arrive at our current state. It will likely take at the very least half again that much for you to help undo the damage already done and to rectify that which is yet to manifest and to implement any turnaround of substance. Do this with a kind heart and a prudent mind, be observant and restrained. Learn to listen. Be honest but don’t be cruel. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn to be a counselor and confidant, a friend and a teacher. Practice discipline and accountability. Be joyful and share your joy with the world.
Admittedly, a lot is being asked of you. But it is not without precedent, and having been done before is proof definitive that it can be done again.
Don’t accept this challenge because you want respect. Do it to be WORTHY of respect. There is a subtle but incredibly powerful difference. Your children and their children’s children will thank you.
©Billy Red Horse