In New Orleans recently, an African-American cab driver said, “Have a good day, young man.” “Young man” (I’ll be 72 in July) is a term of respect in the Black community. It tickled me, because elders in America don’t get much respect.
Leviticus 19:32 states, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Generally, that gets little traction. Check out how often young people remain seated in senior-preference seats on San Francisco’s buses. (When offered a seat, I decline. The elderly need seats; I don’t.)
Dave Eggers offers a frightening look at youth chauvinism in his 2014 novel The Circle. A social-media company—a mash-up of Facebook, Apple, Google (Alphabet) and others—has a state-of-the-art Silicon Valley campus in which 30-year-olds are hard to find. The protagonist, a 24-year-old woman—and new employee—thinks 30 is over the hill. One can’t possibly contribute to society when three decades have sapped one’s energy and enthusiasm. But good judgment takes time to develop. The Circle’s increasingly invasive use of social media and related technology—promulgated, interestingly, by two senior executives of late middle age sprouting faux wisdom—threatens not only individual privacy but also sanity.
Granted, elders don’t always keep up with technology. (I call on my 20-year-old great-nephew Matthew.) Yet we have much to offer in terms of values—including thoughts on appropriate uses of technology. We provide perspective earned both by successes and our failures. Employees at The Circle think that enhanced technology automatically makes life better. Elders—and readers of The Circle—know the matter’s not that simple.
Perspective, however, isn’t all roses. Witness my short story “Beautiful!” in REED Magazine issue 69, the literary/arts annual of San Jose State University. I read a few pages Tuesday evening at the edition’s launch at Books Inc. in Mountain View. On his 80th birthday, a former astronaut marvels at how we can leap into space yet can’t—or won’t—provide for the basic needs of much of humanity. Old age and peace don’t always sync. The story’s ending is disturbing for a reason.
Still, while young people can learn from elders, elders must recognize the validity of youthful energy and ambition, and graciously yield their places to the young. Old age, after all, brings limitations—physical, intellectual, emotional. I’m still writing (and, I hope, making sense). I’m fit; I walk four to seven miles a day. But, for example, my night vision has worsened. Last week, we visited our son Yosi in middle Tennessee. He drove us on country roads at night. I’d have driven at half the speed. Actually, I wouldn’t have driven those roads at all. At night, I see 30 to 50 percent less than Yosi. That’s why many elders drive only in the daytime. Oh, and I’m in bed by ten, ten-thirty the latest.
Another caveat: Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. Many elders see the world through lenses distorted not only by physical weakening but also a lifetime of intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual limitations. Ignorant young people usually become ignorant seniors.
That said, if I can share any wisdom as another birthday approaches, it’s this: Each year I have fewer answers and more questions. Young people just might want to give that some thought.
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