When i was young, my mother served as caretaker for several of the elderly women in our church. She took one, recently widowed and stricken with leukemia, to countless doctors' appointments. She helped another, a compulsive hoarder, empty her cluttered apartment and prepare to move into a rehabilitation facility. (In retrospect, perhaps she was acting out the unfulfilled need to care for her own mother, who had passed when my mother was only nineteen.) My father's step-brother was mentally disabled, and spent most of his life in a group home until he died of lung cancer. And so it was that, homeschooled and largely alienated from my peers, i spent much of my youth around the elderly, in waiting rooms and nursing homes.
"You don't learn how to be an adult from other children," was my mother's maxim when questioned about my lack of conventional 'socialization', and i was twenty-three years old before i could articulate a response: "you don't learn how to interact with your own generation from people of other generations." As a college freshman trying to jumpstart my social development, i worked hard to rewrite my internal programming, to acquire the cultural knowledge and social skills necessary to relate to my peers. Yet frustratingly, i found myself connecting most easily with people in their forties - people twenty years my senior - probably because their parents were the same age as mine, because i had been raised with a cultural knowledge anachronistic by twenty years.
Try as i might to find a place among my peers, longing to belong, i still find myself drawn to social groups where my own generation are often outnumbered by our elders. "Intergenerationality" is a hallmark of the contradance community, and indeed contradance is one of the few milieus i know where people in their twenties and seventies alike mingle in a single activity.
You might imagine the mixed feelings that arose as i sat in silent worship this past Wednesday morning, when i looked around the room and nearly every person was at least sixty. I've been working to let go of the resentment i feel toward my mother and her half-wise parenting choices, to cultivate a healthy identity independent of a rather whacked-out, almost nonexistent sense of generational identity. And there i was in a room once again far outnumbered by my elders.
Why, the silence seemed to ask, does our culture work so hard to hold our elders outside its daily consciousness, often marginalizing them in the process? Is it because the elderly remind us of the inexorable process of aging, reminding us we won't be young forever? Because elders stand as a memento mori, a sign of the inevitable reality of death we prefer to ignore?
As i sat among those elders of the Cambridge Friends Meeting, i felt the room filled by their decades of experience, by the change some had witnessed in nearly a century of life, and the wisdom they had accumulated. I felt a great respect and openness to their experience, a sense that i would no longer run from the presence of elders. And something occurred to me.
So often in modern discourse, we refer to the metaphor of "village" - we say it takes a village to raise a child (a maxim my mother scoffed at but upheld in a skewed, unwitting way); we refer to interdependent, transnational threads in society as a 'global village'. The village of modern discourse, though, is missing something.
A village has elders - and they are its most respected.