When I was growing up in the multicultural circumstances any child of a diplomat or military brat may find familiar, I often encountered the idea that I should show respect to my ‘elders and betters,’ with better meaning of higher social status than my own, e.g. the elders of a tribe, society, or a congregation. I found this hard to swallow given the tipsy hijinks and other questionable behavior I witnessed among the grownups, including those I loved. It has taken a lifetime to help me realize that becoming an elder worthy of respect isn’t a given. Rather, it is something earned, through a patient pursuit of perspective, insight, understanding, and wisdom. “With all thy getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4, King James version, and banner for Forbes editorials since the magazine was founded)
I aspire to evolve into that kind of elder since, according to the Social Security Administration, my age places me squarely in the elderly cohort. But the irony is that today (with some obvious exceptions), some of the best models for Elder-hood are found outside my peer group, in the Millennials, already shaking up the status quo as freshman members of the new Congress, and the teenaged activists: Greta Thunberg on climate, the Parkland kids on gun reform. I can’t imagine one of them coming up to me after a poetry reading, as one 70-something did, suggesting that what was missing was ‘more uplifting’ material. Apparently my selection of poems on climate had rankled. Good, I thought, though smiling and toasting him with my cup of coffee, it wasn’t mere entertainment.
My generation, and the Boomers that followed us, have a lot to answer for to our children and grandchildren about the squandered opportunities to address global warming when smaller, incremental lifestyle adjustments might have arrested, or at least mitigated, the threat. “‘I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead),” wrote Stephen King. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, voting in people who created policy that reflected and protected our shortsighted views, and voting out of office those who would install solar panels on public buildings. We’ve been partying as if tomorrow would never come, as if it were always “50 or 75 years out,” (Andrew Wheeler, new EPA head), and many of us still are.
I hate to take my generation to task (actually, I’m OK with that), but it’s hard to decide which view is more dangerous: that of flat-out climate change Denialists like Wheeler and the president who hired him; those who think individual behavior change is too limited to matter so why bother; or the ‘we-got-this’ group who are banking on a technological fix to cool an overheating planet. But I do know the young, who have a far larger stake in the future than we do, are not wasting their time bickering among themselves, assigning blame, or sitting still. And they know how to communicate quickly and effectively via social media to get things moving.
For those of us who have retired our marching shoes, there is still plenty we can to to support the children who are cutting school as a way of demanding action on climate, or the arts activists staging public ‘die-in’s’ to protest Big Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic (to cite current forms of activism widely reported). We can write a generous check. Offer a bed, a shower, a ride, encouragement and/or meal to activists and poll workers. Help get out the vote. Vote for, and stay in touch with, the members of congress who show some spine on climate crisis, gun reform, corporate greed, and other issues that threaten our future as a nation and a species. Many of us have the financial clout to support companies who are committed to reducing their carbon impact and reject those who don’t by shopping elsewhere. We can also shop less, and more mindfully to help contain runaway consumerism. And we can, by our example, instruct those who follow.
If you have other ideas about how to embrace the role of Elder in these challenging times, consider the comment box your welcome mat.