VIEW VIDEO Growing up, my family observed an odd little custom concerning Christmas and birthdays. Because we could sit on Santa’s lap and tell Santa what we wanted for Christmas, my parents, within reason, would give us what we asked for at Christmastime, provided it was safe and affordable. Slingshots, yes. Nuclear weapons, no. So at Christmas our opinions and desires were sought. Not so for our birthdays, which were always intended to be a surprise. Our parents never asked us what we wanted, and we knew better than to tell them our specific preferences. Birthdays were a pure surprise.
As you can imagine, we preferred Christmas, since we had a say in the matter. My parents were sneaky at birthdays and usually bought us things we needed, but didn’t want, like socks, and underwear, and new shoes. I would unwrap a six-pack of whitey-tighties and feign appreciation. “Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Father. Fruit of the Loom, my favorite. And Hush Puppy shoes. How did you know I wanted these?” The shoes were always two sizes too big, so they would last until my next birthday. New shoes with toilet paper stuffed in the toe box, which I replaced every Sunday night while watching The Wonderful World of Disney, carefully calibrating the amount of toilet paper required to fill the void, a joy the children of rich people never knew.
I’ve been thinking about stuff I want to do before I croak, my geezer’s manifesto. I noted at the beginning of this series that I want to talk less and listen more, especially to young people, whose voices I have too casually dismissed as uninformed and naïve. I pledged to put down my megaphone and pick up my ear trumpet, so want to begin with what I’ll call “the myth of elder wisdom,” that goes something like this: As we age and our bodies wear down, so our role in society changes from one of production to one of guidance and counsel. This myth presumes that as we age, we become wiser. But we know, don’t we, that for every older person who grows wiser, there is another older person who grows more entrenched in their prejudices, more debilitated by dementia, more at risk of fears that cloud sound judgment, more resistant to technology and the change it portends. For every person who is broadened by age and experience, another person is diminished by them. The myth of elder wisdom is just that, a myth. It is an idealized hope, not a proven reality.
The myth of elder wisdom has become so prevalent, so culturally ingrained, we assume its opposite is also true, that young people lack wisdom and can therefore be ignored. Every day is their birthday, so we don’t ask them what they want. But I believe anyone effected by the decisions of their elders should have a say in that decision. For instance, if our legislators today are making important decisions about education, climate change, and energy, it is only fitting that young people, who will live with the consequences of our decisions long after we have died, should have a say in those decisions.
When the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, spoke about climate change at the United Nations, she was roundly mocked by people who will be conveniently dead when Greta Thunberg and her peers are suffering the catastrophic effects of their predecessor’s choices. To not include their voices is like a meme I saw of dogs sitting around a conference room table under the caption, “Meanwhile, at today’s meeting on feline healthcare…” It was based on a photograph taken in 2017, of Mike Pence meeting with the House Freedom Caucus, all of them men, discussing maternity health care and breast cancer screenings. Not a woman in the room. Shouldn’t those affected by our decisions have a say in those decisions?
I remember in the early 1990s when the straight people in our yearly meeting were discussing homosexuality, and several of us suggested we invite gay people to join the conversation so we could better inform ourselves. You would have thought we had opened the door and invited Satan in for coffee.
If the Quakers ever get around to putting me in charge, I will insist that whenever we meet to discuss something that affects others, we must invite the others to be with us, share with us, talk with us, discern with us. Those who must live with the consequences of our decisions, especially the young, should have a say in those decisions. Can I get an Amen!
There’s a curious little story in the gospel of John of Jesus happening upon a man who had been lame a long time, thirty-eight years, the Bible says. Jesus, taking pity, asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” An odd question, I thought to myself when I read it the other day. But then I thought some more about it and thought it not odd at all. It was simply Jesus not presuming to know what someone wanted without first asking them. Those who must live with the consequences of our decisions should have a say in those decisions.
Like many men of his generation, my father was ambitious. In 1972, he was offered a significant promotion that would have required our leaving Danville and moving to Columbus, Ohio. It would have doubled Dad’s pay and put him on the path to the highest reaches in the company he worked for. It was well-deserved, my dad was great at what he did. So Dad convened a family meeting to discuss the situation, where he laid out the choices. If he took the job, we’d have more money, but we’d have to leave our friends. If he didn’t take the job, we could stay in Danville with our friends, but it would cripple his chances for advancement and money would always be a little tight. We’d have to keep putting toilet paper in our shoes. Then he said, “We’re going to vote on it.” So we voted. Dad and Mom, knowing our financial situation, voted to move to Columbus, and we five kids voted to stay in Danville, 5-2, so we stayed in Danville.
Now I don’t know how my life would have turned out if we had moved to Ohio. It might have been wonderful; it might have been terrible. I’ll never know. But I do know it felt good to be asked my opinion about a decision that would have a profound effect on my life. It felt good to have my opinion heard. It felt like Christmas all over again, someone asking what I wanted instead of presuming to know, and me ending up with whitey-tighties yet again. Hence, my geezer manifesto, that as I age, I am going to talk less and listen more, especially to the young. I am going to put down my megaphone and pick up my ear trumpet, so I can better hear what others have to say.