Transcending Youth, Part Four

June 3, 2008

This is the final (and belated!) installment in our series, Transcending Youth. See Part One, Part Two and Part Three. We are grateful to the reader who pointed out our delay in publishing the last in our series.

From Part One:

It is true that as we age, our physicality declines. There is a reason there are no 59 year old football players. It is also true that 75 year olds pull fewer all nighters than 21 year olds.

Of course, that begs certain questions: Is a person’s worth and value determined by his or her physicality? Is a persons worth or value determined by how many hours of overtime that can be extracted from him or her? By their ability to recover from jet lag quickly?

What does it say about us as wards of culture where masses of people are swept aside because of their year of birth? What does it say about us as we label people ‘less fit; because they were born a decade or two before ourselves? What does these realities say about our values?

There are many who are less physical than they used to be, and at the same time they have accumulated much wisdom and insight. Are those people in decline or have they grown? Do we measure the value of output by quantity or quality?

From Part Two:

As we age, our physicality diminishes and our productivity declines. This is an immutable law of nature. How we respond to this truth demarcates how we actually see ourselves and our value to others. If the singular purpose of the spirit and soul is to feed the physical wants and desires of the physical self, then the spirit and soul also diminish with the aging process. For those who believe that our physicality defines our drive and worth, the quality of life diminishes as well. The self fulfilling prophecy of their decline is inevitable…

We live in a culture and society that assigns productive and non productive phases of our lives. For the first couple of decades of our lives, we get a free pass- we are not expected to achieve anything, at least not in the adult sense. Our lives are guided by others. Those years are spent in school, amassing knowledge, acquiring the rudiments of a skill and learning the rules that govern our society. For the following 30 to 40 years, we are on stage. Our skills, ideas and creativity are given a stage of sorts. Some of us aspire to do our job well. Others put in time only and are productive only as much is necessary. All in all, we are expected to take over those who have preceded us and are now passive. We are also expected to prepare those behind us to replace us.

Our culture and society dictate that we are supposed to take our now honed skills, knowledge and creativity and put them away because we are getting older. As a certain birthday approaches, achievements are to be arbitrarily put on the shelf. Overnight, the older person is moved to the sidelines of life. Any creativity or ideas that still bubble over are meant to be directed into harmless pastimes. The ‘twilight of our lives’ are meant to be spent in mindless and meaningless endeavors. Once we reach a certain age, we are supposed to believe that time itself has less value. We come full circle, back to our childhood. We are not expected to really contribute. As in childhood, we are told what is best for us. Our still valuable potential to do, achieve and mentor is packed away in boxes and put into permanent storage.

From Part Three:

Cultures and societies assign a kind of sanctity to some institutions and ideas. We educate children in a certain way, we have established work patterns and ethics and we have institutionalized and even idealized (invisible) aging and retirement.

Forced or otherwise, retirement has literally destroyed the lives of countless Americans. As we grow older as a nation and society and live healthier and longer lives, retirement removes some of the valuable human capital from the pool of useful wisdom and insight. Capable people are taken out of the race, and their hard earned experience and assets are wasted. This is nothing short of a human, cultural and social disaster. Younger people learn that if society will not assign great value to the potential of the aging, why should they? If our culture regards older people as a burden, is it any surprise that people who worship the appearance of youth will feel burdened and overwhelmed in the presence of older people? Our parents can only serve as a painful reminder of what is to come- and a reminder that we cannot overcome nature, no matter how tightly we shut our eyes or how many times we click our heels in fervent wishing. We too will age. No wonder parents and grandparents are relegated to nursing homes and elder care facilities. Out of sight, out of mind.

It is clear that for every retiree who wishes to spend time in their garden or fishing, there are many times that number who want to make positive contributions to the world around. Still others want to pursue the ideas and goals of their youth that were often pushed aside in favor of more pressing responsibilities.

We also noted

Colleges and universities can make classes and courses free or of little cost to older Americans. The benefits to young students sharing a classroom with older Americans too numerous to mention. Older students can challenge professors and teachers with ideas and observations born of experience. Younger students could only benefit from the wisdom shared in the classroom. More importantly, integrating older people with young students can only serve to benefit society as a whole. Young people who integrate their older peers are less likely to see them as ‘valueless’ or ‘irrelevant.’ Wisdom and insight have a profound effect on how we see our world and how we integrate new ideas. There is a reason teachers influence students and when it is all said and done, you can never have too many teachers. Older students have a real thirst and hunger for knowledge (it isn’t as if they have to be in school). Their enthusiasm for learning can only serve as a lifelong good example.

Every city, town and village can benefit from such an arrangement. Bringing together the vitality of youth with the wisdom and insight that comes from experience is a testament to life long productivity.

Westerners often marvel at the Asian societies that so fully revere and respect elderly family members and the aged. How that has come to pass is clear: In many of the Asian cultures, age is not a handicap, but rather a record of achievement. To have reached old age is to have endured much hardship and tribulation. To have reached old age means that knowledge and wisdom have been acquired, by way of personal experience or by way of lifelong observations.  Old age is a mark of success.

In western societies, old age is a badge of failure and decline- and in every society that equates old age with irrelevance, older people will fight nature and reality. Entire industries today are predicated on the idea that old age can be put off. Older people will pit themselves against younger people, competing for the same center stage, the same material possessions, cultural supremacy and ideological influence.

Even the word retirement has a negative connotation. We retire objects and ideas when they are no longer viable. What message does a culture and society send when people are ‘retired’? If we channel and direct the experience and wisdom of older people, we can purge and abolish the very notion that people are ‘retired’ from a meaningful and contributory life as they age. In reality, we can demand and expect much from those willing to make our world a better place.

Every year, we read of 80 and 90 year old high school and college graduates and marvel at their tenacity. Every year, older physicians and lawyers and accountants go our into their communities and help or mentor others. Their successes should not come as a surprises to anyone. A lifetime of experience, wisdom and insight makes those people uniquely qualified to succeed. Their ‘retirement’ is really just another word for ‘meaningful engagement.’

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One Response to “Transcending Youth, Part Four”

  1. Viola Jaynes Says:

    Siggy, this series of essays have been thought provoking and encouraging. I admire those older folks who want to keep their minds active and their lives full. It is a great example for those of us right behind them. Thanks for writing on this difficult topic!

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