I think often of the role played by elders in a society.
In elementary school growing up, we learned quite a lot about the various cultures of Canada’s aboriginal peoples. I remember clearly the respect that the words of their elders carried, and the position of esteem and prominence that they played in their social units. Elders, both male and female, were the leaders, the teachers, the decision makers and the judges that enabled their cultures and traditions to survive for thousands of years. I imagine this wisdom played a role also in the survival of the people themselves, having chosen a particularly harsh environment in which to call home.
Traveling through Africa’s deep-rural areas, I regularly encountered much of the same reverence for the wisdom of the aged. I was fortunate to witness many quiet deliberations, long minutes disappearing in silence with looks of distant concentration written in the deep lines of old faces. I was fortunate also to hear the subsequent judgments, on issues ranging from agriculture to religion to love. Universally, their words emerged with a slow and quiet caution, each carefully considered and weighed before being given a voice. While many of those I happened to witness couldn’t read or write, and had certainly never studied logic or rhetoric, they spoke with lucidity of mind, and an intelligence which drew its source from a place far deeper than that available in books and displayed on expensive pieces of paper.
A few weeks ago, chance brought me into the foyer of a “retirement community” in suburban Toronto. There, tucked in an out-of-the-way corner where they can’t bother anyone, is our culture’s store of wisdom. I have been in a handful of such places, and I am always struck my the impression that everybody is waiting for something. They sit, frail and gray, scattered about in comfortable arm-chairs, staring vacantly into space, or napping silently. Hours later, I pass again through the same space and am slightly taken aback at just how little has changed in so many ticks of the clock. Perhaps the nappers are now staring vacantly, and the vacant starers are now napping. Either way, precious little seems to be said of the thousands of years of collective life experience brought together in a single room.
There is something unsettling to me about all that waiting. What are they waiting for? After a life-time lived, one doesn’t expect the grand conclusion to be a drawn out hum, like the vertical coloured bars and mono-tone of an old television station, signed off for the long hours of the night. Often, the comfortable arm-chairs seem to have arranged themselves around the main-entrance – spectators waiting for a show, any show at all, to punctuate the hum, even if only the Fed-ex guy dropping off a package. Do they have a choice, or is their actually their best-of-all-possible-options?
True wisdom is that gained from experience. How tragic that this very moment, thousands of life-times of experience sit silently across our country and our continent. Are we better off, for their silence?
We have little patience for such non-sense as wisdom anymore. When the kids need to get to soccer practice, the truck needs an oil change, the neighbors just got a new TV, and there is talk of lay-offs at work, who has the time to bother with wisdom. What place is there for slow and cautious consideration in a world ruled by a rule called “time-is-money”? None, it would seem, except perhaps a nice, quiet corner, where they can’t bother anybody.
I’m not sure how it happened, but it does seem undeniable that reverence for the wisdom of our elders has been usurped by the indulgent whims of our children. I grant, of course, that I am effectively comparing so-called “primitive cultures” with our so-called “developed world.” I recognize how our quality of life differs across both time and space, and I am certain that, by what I have said so far, one could argue that the whims of children are superior to the wisdom of elders. But does anybody really believe that? The children may choose the most interesting paint job for the car, but do we let them drive, determine the destination, choose the path and look after the maintenance as well?
It’s obvious that modern technology and thought has brought us many wonderful things, but at what cost? Those “primitive cultures” managed to survive for thousands of years, and provided we don’t kill them all, will likely go on for thousands of years more. Our culture, on the other hand, though an infant itself in the grand scheme, has been compared to locomotive racing off a cliff. We have created a world defined by unsustainability, instability and inequality. No fancy computer modeling can sustain our level of resource consumption, and yet every day we consume more than the day before. Every day we consume more than the day before.
This is to be expected, I suppose, when the growing three-year-old in the backseat, tired of watching his personal DVD player, tired of playing with his various movie-themed, but creatively stagnant toys and tired of the wide variety of processed snacks his mom was able to gather (on sale) for the trip, begins to cry out for something else, something different, something new.
Kids are annoying when they cry. I really wish there was something I could do to entertain him, to distract him, to just shut him up.
Old people are also annoying when they cry. Good thing we have retirement communities to shut them away in, or we might have to listen to their slow, rambling and obsolete ideas about our flawless society. Hurry up and get the kid in the van, or we’ll be late. See you next year grandpa.
Peace and Love.