Elders Hold Crystal Wisdom: Listen
I watched Jack roam the village. He was short and a muscled sort of skinny that had come from decades of physical work. He saw me and smiled — his teeth were yellowed and crooked, and some were missing. They stood in sharp contrast to his spotted, dark skin. Cataracts coated his eyes and squeezed from them a constant stream of tears. Objectively speaking, he wasn’t a very appealing figure, but affection made me smile back, with a slight duck of my head — he was the region’s chief and deserved my deference.
While on a medical mission trip in Vanuatu, an island nestled near Australia in the South Pacific, the way I saw people treat Chief Jack and other chiefs was very different from the way a man of his age would be treated in our Western world. The village listened to him, obeyed him and respected him. His word was final. He was the central figure in the village. Chief Jack’s sons were stronger, more handsome and able to work harder to adapt to the shifting society on the island, yet he was still the head.
It strikes me the respect for Chief Jack would be upside-down here in America. We would focus on his stable sons rather than him. We would let those with smoother skin and fuller smiles lead our village. We would relegate Chief Jack to a corner hut, where he could rest — and be useless. That’s what we expect the elderly to do, is it not?
I don’t think the picture I painted of the village in Vanuatu is entirely foreign to us. We all know elders are the most respected members of the family in many parts of the world, yet we have no concept of this in our own society. Our respect for those older than us — not just those who are truly capital-O Old, but parents and bosses and teachers as well — has vanished.
This is no sudden, unexplainable phenomenon. Over the past few decades, our nation has grown an obsession with being, and looking, young. We have every form of plastic surgery conceivable to remove all traces of aging. The aisles of Wal-Mart are thick with women dressing like their daughters, while magazines are shouting at shoppers that “20 is the new 60.” In movies and on television — particularly shows aimed at preteens and teens — parents are ridiculed and treated as foolish, the elderly are used as comedic props and the abnormally attractive young star is portrayed as the pinnacle of brilliance. The West kneels at the feet of youth to worship, and those who are no longer young (or no longer look it) are cast aside.
Why do other cultures honor the aged? It is, of course, for their greater knowledge. They have felt life’s smiles and stings far more than we have. Their insight is, therefore, far better than ours. Philosopher Amadou Hampate Ba wrote, “When an elder person dies in Africa, it is as though a whole library had burned down.” Their people acknowledge and respect their elders’ wealth of wisdom.
We ought to honor our elders for the same reason. Even dismissing tradition, we have scientific reasons to do so. According to the Cattell-Horn theory of intelligence, there are two kinds of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is abstract thinking and problem solving; it is the young man’s innovation. However, crystallized intelligence is knowledge and skills gained purely from experience; it is the old man’s wisdom. Those of us still in school, half-baked adults that we are, simply cannot have the same understanding of life that those with more years under their belts.
We have begun to value beauty over wisdom; we are treading dangerous ground. Consider the future course of our businesses, educational systems and government if all becomes a pageant. We can see clearly neither the present nor the future, but we can see the past in 20/20. Let’s sit at the feet of those who see further back than us and learn. If we cannot do that, then let us at least try to show our elders that we honor them. They will benefit from the encouragement while we benefit from the humility. Finally, consider this: How will you want to be treated by the next generation?
Clara Spann is a sophomore English and creative writing major and a contributing columnist for the Arkansas Traveler.