By Stan Stewart
I’m old! Damn it! There, I’ve said it. I never wanted to say it. I never thought I would say it. But now there’s no denying it. How do I feel about it? Not great!
A Chinese quote I read years ago, sticks in my mind. It went something like this. “Life begins at seventy, because at 70, you can sit in a place of honour in the village square and craft calligraphy, and young people come and ask your advice about their problems.
In my seventies, we visited Asia on several occasions. The way I was treated by young people came as a pleasant surprise. I am not talking about hotel staff, but by young strangers on buses and on the streets. They smiled at me and offered assistance. Such deference has been part of their culture for centuries. It’s an aspect of ‘the place of honour’ referred to in the quote.
It is not a characteristic of western culture. Comedians have called seniors, ‘old farts’ and the label has stuck. Whether on the streets or in shops or buses, I don’t experience the gentle, friendly deference I experienced in Asia. My worst experiences have been in electronic stores. Young male technical assistants have reduced me to stuttering by their glares. On one occasion, a young woman with ruby red lips and gleaming nails, talked down to me with such disdain, that I forgot why I came into the store.
In the late 60’s, I did some work for the Australian Council of Churches in Papua New Guinea (PNG). At that time, I was told that PNG was the most Christian country in the world. It was estimated that 90% of the population attended a church of one kind or other every Sunday. However, just this last week I read that PNG is now rated as the most lawless country in the world. Robbery, violent crime and extortion permeate the whole of society.
What went wrong? Well, I know one thing that went wrong. Older people were disconnected and disenfranchised. This caused the traditions and structures of tribal life to fall apart. In tribal societies, older people were the respected repositories of wisdom and culture. The missionaries brought the Bible and insisted that from now on leaders of the tribe would be people who could read. The old people were the last to learn to read. Because of this, they were sidelined. They sat in a corner chewing betel nut and the bright young things called the shots and communities fell apart. I know this is an oversimplification. Nonetheless, this analysis has validity.
I am told that a favourite subject in today’s high schools is ‘coding’ - writing computer code to make computers perform tasks. In Brisbane, where I am currently living, the local high school students are building robots which can perform simple and not so simple tasks. Computer games keep young people up through the night and blockbuster cinema hits are based on Marvel Comics. Their parents’ world of business and commerce are also vastly different to the world I knew, of business and commerce.
People like me, of British stock, are encouraged to sell the family home and ‘retire’ to a comfortable community with people of similar age; the idea being that with our peers around us, we can relax and enjoy our ‘golden years’ with people who appreciate the things we appreciate. As far as younger people are concerned, we are ‘out of the pool’ of their life. We don’t chew betel nut, but in our different world, we work at finding ways to induce a pleasant calm.
If we are lucky, our younger people will visit us now and again for special occasions and celebrate milestones. But their aspirations and our lives don’t really intersect.
I have been asking myself, do we oldies have anything of value to contribute to the young ones in their fast-changing world? I know that in Papua New Guinea, the sidelining of the seniors was damaging. Could the lack of interaction between the old and young also be detrimental to our society?
What have we got to give? We have seen a lot of things and people come and go. As well as the mistakes of others, we have made mistakes. Many of us now greatly value forgiveness and acceptance. We know something about resilience - bouncing back when things go pear shaped. These things are worth sharing. But what if they don’t want to listen?
For starters, don’t preach! As to when and how you share your life, I think of a saying given to me by a wily tennis player. “There’s no point in getting old if you don’t get cunning.” Share when the time is right - seize the day and all that. We are still needed.