Changing with the times

(140423) -- JIUQUAN, April 23, 2014 (Xinhua) -- A man walks in a sandstorm on the outskirt of Guazhou, Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, April 23, 2014. Parts of Gansu was hit by a sandstorm Wednesday afternoon, which reduced visibility to less than 50 meters, according to the provincial meteorological center. (Xinhua/Nie Jianjiang) (hdt)

by Stan Hirst

Try this simple word association game with your friends or family members. It will take less than a minute. Give them a word and ask them to respond immediately with whatever word that first comes into their minds. Give them about six or seven random words in quick succession and then throw in the word “elder”.

I’ve tried this about a dozen times with various people and the responses to the last word have included ‘grey’, ‘old’, ‘berry’, ‘younger’ and ‘discount’. The words I haven’t yet heard are ‘wise’, ‘wisdom’, ‘authority’ or any similar positive descriptors normally attached to elders in novels and learned papers.

Many times in the recent past I’ve voiced the opinion that we western elders have lost our standing as a repository of knowledge, skills, advice and suchlike. We have lost our wisdom. Source of knowledge? Not any more, the youngsters have the internet for that. Come to think of it, so do I. Elders as a source of intelligent and wise decision-making? Nah, we’ve now got the popular press, the electronic media and the blogosphere for that. Who needs to ask an elder?

Our European-dominated society tends not to vest authority in individuals based on their age. Today we have CEOs of major corporations in their early thirties, we have national leaders in their early forties, we have young people leading the way in community actions. Our culture has become youth-oriented, thanks to lifestyles and social media.

If you have a half-hour to spare (or waste), check the commercials during the evening news on any major U.S. television network. The first fifteen minutes are dominated by flashy commercials for mobile phones, glitzy cars and starch-rich snacks being gulped down by young, beautiful people. The second fifteen minutes gives us commercials for cutting-edge remedies for erectile dysfunction (no pun intended) and other senile ailments, all projected by grinning old people desperately trying to look like younger people.

Some might say, cynically, that we’re getting our just desserts for what we contributed to the world in our younger days. Much of the neat glitzy stuff in use today was invented and developed by today’s elders in their younger days. The list includes the TV remote control, the microwave oven, birth-control pills, jet airliners, cordless tools, industrial robots, communications satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and the light-emitting diode.

Have we all now morphed into zombies? Have we become denser and less responsible with time? I think not.

Some of us have become a little foggy with age, but that’s not the point. I suggest that, apart from a little arthritis and occasional deafness, the big change hasn’t been with us as much as its been with the world. Remember the lines of the song sung by John Lennon back in 1980: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

I would suggest that a key issue for elders here is that the world has changed under us as we progressed. Like Neo in the film The Matrix, we’re waking up to the true extent of the challenges we humans face at this point in history. Some call this an “Oh shit!” moment.

Now what do we do? How can we enjoy life on a day-to-day basis in light of what we are beginning to understand about the truly terrifying collective disasters and challenges headed our way?

An ecotherapist of note who has commented succinctly on this is California-based Linda Buzzell. She refers to a “waking-up syndrome” in which we explore the stages we go through as the reality of the rapidly-worsening environmental situation creeps through the fog pervading our awareness.

Linda points out that [most] humans cannot cope with this degree of change alone, and that very few emerging problems can be solved by individuals. Whole communities, on the other hand, can come together to care for one another in challenging times.

However, each of us has to think through the issue for ourselves (if we’re to be ‘Elderly’ about it), and Linda has some timely advice on how to approach this more effectively.

1. Reconnect with the sacred in nature.
2. Breathe deeply and settle into just this one moment on just this particular day.
3. Be part of the solution, even if in tiny ways.
4. Take a media vacation.
5. Take a permaculture design course.
6. Read books by wise people who are wide-awake.
7. Form a circle of community members to discuss these books.



  1. These are excellent points to ponder, Stan. I tried your word association and thought immediately of “youth”, not because it’s the opposite of elder (at least I don’t think that was the reason), but because much of what the Suzuki Elders have been up to recently involves connecting with youngsters, some pretty wise for their age. Also, youth become elders, a natural cycle of life and as you point out, and we reap what we sow. Maybe an eighth point on Linda’s list should be to become the best examples we can for youth.

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