Mel Graykin: The unashamed advantages of age

For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Cosmetics, exercise, surgery, vitamins, supplements. Books and videos and shows that tell us how to stay young. Posts and posters proudly proclaiming, “I refuse to grow up!” Hundreds of millions spent to hang on to youth. Contempt heaped upon old ideas, established ways of doing things, the cautious, patient and mature. Bring on the new! The bold and daring! The radical! Get out of the way geriatrics – go retire, get invisible and make way for the next generation!

We live in a culture that worships youth and treats old age like a fatal disease that no one ever wants to admit they have contracted. Our society applauds celebrity, reveres beauty and wealth, craves excitement, and delights in seeing authority figures torn down and humiliated. It loves brash rebels, precocious youngsters and kids who outwit adults. There are occasionally the wise elders – white-bearded wizards or outrageous grannies – but only so long as they serve the desires and purposes of the younger generation. But no one would ever want to be the wise elder – not when they can be the young, handsome hero who gets all the credit, the glory and the girl.

This prevailing attitude cultivates all the worst flaws of the youth it idolizes. It makes us quick to judge and quick to blame, and it’s always someone else’s fault. It makes us impatient, angry, self-righteous and self-obsessed. We want action and instant solutions. Who cares about history? It doesn’t involve us. Rules just get in the way of what we want. And what we want is what everyone should want, and anyone who disagrees is a horse’s backside. Especially old people who try to explain why youth doesn’t always know what it is talking about.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against youth. I live in a house full of teens and twenty-somethings, and I’m glad of it. I love their energy and enthusiasm. They turn me on to new music, movies, games and ideas. They keep me from drifting into curmudgeonly isolation, muttering into my corn flakes about kids these days.

And as I age, I’m increasingly grateful to have someone around who can carry wood and shovel snow. Youth brings energy, strength, fresh ideas, challenges and courage to a society. We older folks often get set in our ways and need a bit of shaking up. But youth undisciplined, with no respect for the past and those who have lived it, is a forest fire.

Age brings experience. When you have lived and made mistakes and seen bright ideas go wrong, seen what works and what doesn’t, it gives you a measure of wisdom. The older members of society know why there are rules, how to work within them and the unfortunate consequences of ignoring them. Living in a community or working in an organization for many years gives you insights into how that community or organization works, the variety of viewpoints and the different kinds of people. You learn how to respectfully disagree, to remain on friendly terms in spite of differences, how to find common ground and get things done.

When you know the history, you understand the present. You realize how we got here and why. You remember the evils of the past, why laws and policies were enacted to address them. You neither have to reinvent the wheel nor rediscover fire. Old dogs don’t necessarily need to learn new tricks; they already know the best ones.

And those who fail to remember the past and who do not learn from history get to make the same disastrous mistakes all over again.

No doubt some readers will hasten to point out that age is no guarantee of wisdom. Alas, it is all too true. Many people, for assorted reasons, never gain the wisdom one would hope for. They are often old enough to know better but still emulate the worst qualities of youth in order to appeal to the young and appear young-thinking. They pass judgment and cast blame and demand respect without earning it. They are angry and self-righteous, cynical instead of philosophical, bitter instead of mellow. They also manifest those distinctive flaws of age – idolizing the past and clinging to it – instead of taking its lessons and letting it go. Time does not teach them the futility of grudges, the need to let old feuds die. When age does not bring wisdom, it earns the contempt of the young.

It is my hope that our society, while still appreciating the value of youth, can outgrow this obsession with its dazzling intoxication. May we embrace the advantages of a maturity both worthy and wise.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)