Whenever I talk with a class of children in our Academy or Religious Education (CCD) Program about growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, they look at me as though I came out of a time machine from some historical era of the past! I tell them, for instance, about not having a TV or a Telephone or a Computer and I can see them look at me with compassion on how “deprived” I was as a child! I remember telling them of my first TV and how I had to get up from my seat and manually change the channels! Their look of horror was intensified when I reassured them that it wasn’t so bad since we only had about 7 or 8 channels! I would cap my discussion with the almost unimaginable revelation: TV programs ended at about 11pm or 12 Midnight with the American flag on the screen and the National Anthem playing!
The result is that they seem very thankful about living in today’s world. But I tell them how much fun it was to grow up then. For example: the safety of moving freely, when at 7 or 8 years old I would go alone with my friends on the subway to Yankee Stadium for a ball game; how we spent long hours in a clubhouse that we had built from lumber cast off from the local lumberyard; I tell them of our building of go-carts and racing down quiet and empty streets! The world was ours and we invented our own fun and enjoyment. We were not buried in screens and talking with virtual non-present friends!
Perhaps that better prepared us to cope with the difficulties of growing up and growing old. There is a special wisdom that emerges on its own through the laboratories of experience. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, hence the expression, “There’s no fool like an old fool”. But in most societies, elders are held in great esteem because of the wealth of their experience.
Not so in our culture. This is a ‘throw away’ culture where the word ‘old’ is synonymous with being ‘bad.’ ‘New’ and ‘young’ are, by contrast, considered positive values. Of course, dividing everything along how old a person is can be very inaccurate. There are plenty of young people who are wise and plenty of elders who are foolish. But we must own our prejudices as a culture and do our best to combat their facile pleasures.
Elders face some very momentous decisions dealing with their health and the approaching end of their earthly lives. That alone should call forth a caring and respectful response. But we must also realize the riches that are within them. Sure, the body creaks and the mind gets confused at times, but our senior citizens are truly great people who have often gone through great trials and, unbeknownst to us as we look at them in wheel chairs, they have borne the brunt of years of struggle and have accomplished great feats that are only remembered by the chosen few.
I recall a man whom I visited while I was a seminarian. I was walking through a nursing home and he was sitting alone in a wheelchair seemingly lost in a reverie. I did not think much of him since he looked no different from others around him. But I went up to him and tried to engage him in conversation. I did not expect much because of my prejudices. I was young and active; he was old and confined. It turns out that, earlier in his life, he had been a violinist in a big city orchestra and had worked with some of the great conductors! I asked him about one of them whom I admired. His simple and dismissive response was, “A magnificent fake!” Wow! I had written this wheelchair-bound man off, but he had a wealth of knowledge and experience that could only be envied. As I surveyed the other wrinkled, forgotten ones in the room, I wondered, “How many great stories and experiences are hidden here in plain sight!”
Our American quest for newness and novelty has fostered new discoveries and improved the lives of many people. I am not suggesting that we should seek an ‘Amish’ solution to the valuing of experience and age. But we have to admit the blind-spot that it creates regarding the many gifted and experienced people who we should listen to since they faced many of our present problems in the past and have come up with great and natural solutions.
We must also not immediately baptize something new as beneficial. While smart phones have many advantages, they come with some real deficits.
I remember a funny piece in the New Yorker entitled, “A New Interactive Experience”. It told of the innovative pastime of ‘going outside to take a walk’. It was interactive, colorful and three-dimensional!
We must learn to embrace our elders and appreciate the sacrifices that they have made in life for their families and for the rest of the world. For this is the path to true wisdom—to learn from them the art of living!