Disrespect for those steeped in years is nothing new, as old as the Greeks. The insufficiently seasoned miss what only time teaches. They listen less, reveal what they do not know, are often slow to grow. They undervalue age and history. Can we correct that? Maybe, as every need to learn is a chance to teach.
With social change coming like a flooding river, we see more disrespect for age and history in the public square, online, in media and social media, even the grocery store. People pause less, squawk more.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” That truth never changes, but is two-edged, an excuse for what some cannot yet see, a truth they must know. Einstein called experience his great teacher, Ceasar called it “the teacher of all things.” Yet respect lags.
Age, like history, is priceless. What age teaches we cannot buy, imagine, presume, or replicate, no matter how big our desire or wallet, how authentic or artificial your intelligence. Age is pure value.
If older Americans are underestimated, live knowing that others will not know what they do until they “get there,” this particular stretch of American history seems particularly fraught with disrespect.
Disrespect for age, for priceless learning, rankles. But it is worse than that. A Republic is damaged when large parts disrespect tradition, things learned the hard way, and that truth comes from time’s passage.
Why is that important? Because ceaseless pursuit of truth – believe it or not – is how individuals, communities, and whole republics get things right, protect, and correct when they go wrong. To down-value pursuit of truth is to down-value not just yourself, but the whole society, the future.
This is a part of what is missing. Older Americans know this is true, and it frustrates them to see so little spiritual, emotional, scientific, historic, economic, and political pursuit of truth. The thing does exist, is knowable – yet much of what passes for knowledge is pure bunk, rootless, unanchored, untruth.
So, what do older Americans know that others do not? A secret. Here it is. They know big things are missing, the gap between truth and disinterest in truth growing, and it needs closing soon.
Missing are things they learned by hard work, hard living, focus on truth. Older Americans know honest dialogue matters – sharing differences without animus, learning not to treat all things as outrages.
They know we need to recultivate curiosity, self-awareness, knowing how to ask hard questions, think critically, unpack assumptions, see what others are hiding – get at facts and motivations, be a Sherlock-like sleuth, puzzle things out, to arrive at truth.
They know missing is an archeology of the brain, digging for answers, grappling with big questions in life, history, philosophy, theology, physics, astronomy, economy, agronomy – even bonhomie (friendliness).
Missing is an appreciation for age and history, for mansions of truth built from bricks of experience, from the process of trying, daring, failing, falling, learning, and then succeeding, part of our Republic’s history.
You do not need to be deep to accept the nature of experience. As Mark Twain noted, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Age represents that learning.
The problem we have today – arguably, more than other – is lack of appreciation for truth, which reflects undervaluing age and history, since history is age on age of learning.
The complicated thinker Soren Kierkegaard, observed “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Bingo! Age offers perspective, which is what we seem to lack.
All this brings me back to two questions: How do we handle the whirl of social change, often ignoring wisdom borne of age? And how do we get the Republic to respecting truth and history?
Ironically, the answer is right were we started: Those older must step up, keep stepping up, show the tenacity, patience, persistence and belief in life-learned lessons. We must keep sharing what we know, nurturing seedlings, and sowing. Only in this way, will they – and we – keep growing.
Perhaps one of the most thoughtful, misunderstood, controversial Greeks (500 BC) was Heraclitus. He tried to teach experience. He wrote: “No man every steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” If the need to learn is a chance to teach, also each chance to teach is one to learn.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.