2011/04/06

Becoming an elder

Sunday I turned 70. That means that I am now one of the elders. I do not take this responsibility lightly. You and all the other members of our tribe — the entire human race — have a right to expect more of me now, and I shall try to satisfy your expectations.

I am probably not any smarter than I was when I was 20 or 30 or 40. Maybe even less smart, in the sense of grasping new information, like, say, all the technological changes that come so fast these days. But — unless we have been really dumb all these years and actively resisting knowledge — we elders are bound to be wiser than we were. That's just the way the brain works, accumulating experience, transferring new knowledge grasped by our quick left-brain to our more meditative right brain. Elkhonon Goldberg has explained how all this happens, the physical changes in our brains that make us maybe a little less quick to grasp new information, but nevertheless able to react more quickly and surely (without all that youthful Hamlet-like doubting) because almost anything we encounter is somehow like something we have seen before.

The job of youth is to change the world. Then — in our 30s, 40s, 50s — to understand it. And now, as elders, to accept it.

But accepting — I mean seeing reality as it is, without the screen of wishful thinking — is not enough. That could just be depressing if we didn't also remember our younger selves. Our job as elders is to share what we've learned so that all of us, young, mature and elders, can change things better.

That's been my story, and the story of others I have known and admired, including some who reached elderhood long before me. Those who were in their 20s back in the 1930s, for example. We Americans who were in our 20s back in the '60s did change the world, very substantially. We broke down some fierce racial barriers in the US, we changed the gender rules, we forced our government to accelerate the end of its war in Southeast Asia, we created new art forms in all the arts. Some of the changes came so fast that we who had been pushing for them were perplexed and confused, because the terrain was changing. And some of the changes were unexpected, and not all of them were good.

I began to get an inkling that things were more complicated than I had first assumed when I was still in my 20s. Work as a community organizer in what for me was a foreign culture, the poor barrios of Caracas, Venezuela, was a bath in a different pond. When I got back to the States I started grad school in sociology, still focused on changing the world but also recognizing that I needed to work harder to understand it. I thought I could do the two things simultaneously, coupling my sociological research and courses and readings with very active participation in the antiwar and civil rights movements, trying to bring those things together.

The shift into a new phase of consciousness didn't happen all at once, but suffered some big jolts when I was in my 30s. First, the coup in Chile (September 11, 1973, when I was 32) made it clearer than ever how hard the democratic struggle was going to be. And then the rapid deflation of the anti-war movement in 1975 drove a lot of us activists back to the books and into ferocious debates over political and revolutionary theory. And a lot of it turned out to be wishful thinking. The proletariat that we had imagined didn't even exist, the capitalism we were confronting was not the caricature that had been drawn for us, the people we thought we were liberating didn't always (if ever) behave the way we had expected. 

Which didn't mean that we shouldn't try to change the world, to make it more just, to open more opportunities to more people. Just that it was going to be harder than we thought, and maybe there would never be a final, total victory, but rather the unceasing struggle to widen justice and keep injustice from encroaching.

I've learned some things, I think. And now that I am one of the elders of our tribe, it will be my honor and especially my duty not just to share knowledge already acquired, but to use my new elder skills to seek out reasonable strategies in the face of all our several crises of war, contamination, and continued injustices of all kinds.

By the way, the birthday party on Sunday was a blast. Thanks to all my good friends who participated, and all the others who couldn't be present but sent their good wishes.

(Check out my earlier blog comment on Eros and Thanatos for more about Goldberg's thesis.)

4 comments:

RD said...

Beautifully said and hopeful. A birthday present from you to me on your birthday. Thank you always for your wisdom and sense and compassion for your fellow humans.

gef said...

Thanks again, my friend and virtual travel companion.

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

Thoughtful and stimulating. I've passed it on to several people with similar histories.

gef said...

Thanks, Dirk. I know you know what it's about.