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February 22, 2014

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Marginalizing the elderly is detrimental to our society

In China’s ongoing debate about whether men and women should retire at an older age, one question is probably not being asked enough: What is the value of our elders, after all?

Much of the debate seems to have focused on whether it’s unfair to allow civil servants, especially officials with perks, to work five years more than they do now, while denying ordinary workers their rights to retire and enjoy pension as early as possible.

While it’s fine to focus on fairness (or lack of it) when it comes to retirement, our society will benefit more if we consider whether elders in general deserve to play a bigger role as cadres, workers or mentors.

In ancient times, elders in their sixth or seventh winters could still be very high-ranking officials.

The more modern belief that younger is better may not prove to be so all the time.

Over the past three decades or so, many senior cadres and workers in China were ordered to retire, no matter how capable they were of completing their duty.

Demerits versus merits

The rapid rise of a young generation of leaders in many aspects had its own demerits as well as merits.

For one thing, the older generations’ low-carbon lifestyle and caring for collective well-being largely gave way to youngsters’ quest for material prosperity and individualism.

This is not to say all elders tend to be frugal or all youngsters tend to be wasteful, but compulsory retirement at certain ages did erase the wisdom of elders from many walks of life.

Which brings me to the book, “Walking with Grandfather: The Wisdom of Lakota Elders,” written by Joseph M. Marshall III, a historian and writer who grew up in the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, America.

“Needless to say, I learned much from my grandfather, and not only during my childhood. I can and do recall the valuable lessons he taught, of course, because they are in my file of memories,” he says. “...those memories reappear, as it were, because a current moment gives them meaning.”

He mentioned a US election as an example. “I watched several television commercials as they came fast and furious in the weeks just before the election. There was no difference among them. One commercial tore down one candidate’s record of service and reputation, while another tried to build it up,” he says.

“The commercials reminded me of something that my grandfather had said more than once. A truly humble person rarely stumbles, he contended, because such a person walks with his face toward the Earth and therefore can see the path ahead. An arrogant person walks with head held high to bask in the glory of the moment... Grandpa Albert’s advice was to align oneself with the humble person. If there was a truly humble person in the milieu of vociferous and contentious candidates, that person was lost in the process.”

He continues: “...we contemporary humans, especially in American society, think that all that matters is the present... We live in a world that moves at cyber speed, craves instant gratification, and revels in technology. Consequently we are so impressed with the current version of ourselves that we aren’t aware that our ancestors contributed to what we are and what we do and how we think.”

Once ruled with widom

Certainly it is not that older is better, but Marshall reminds us that there was a time in American society, as in many other places, when elders ruled with great wisdom that is lost today.

Humility is just one of the lost merits.

While I hail checks and balances and free speech in America, I do not appreciate the arrogance of certain politicians and newsmen when it comes to election campaigns. As Marshall implies, there are few truly humble persons out there.

Humility is lacking not just in American election campaigns today, but also in judging other systems which are not familiar to the average modern Amercan politician.

“Euro-American thinking forces non-Indians to assume that without ‘law and order,’ societies cannot be governed. Contrary to such assumptions, indigenous societies of North America did ‘govern’ themselves, although there were no written laws or codes or rules as such,” the author writes. “Indigenous societies did have expectations and rules for behavior, but just as important, they looked to the wisdom of the elders among them.”

Those elders, the author explains, formed a council to give advice on everything from daily life to matters of war.

“The council of elders fulfilled its responsibility through the power of the influence of their wisdom,” says Marshall. “Every issue was discussed at length, sometimes for several days and nights. At the end, the council didn’t issue ultimatums or edicts. They simply informed the people what they thought. That opinion, or opinions, formed the basis of action because of the depth of the council’s wisdom.”

“Wisdom was more important than authority,” he says. “As a matter of fact, there was no authority. As another matter of fact, there was no concept of authority.”

In his view, “wisdom is associated with old age, and that, too, is entirely appropriate because wisdom cannot be had in ten easy lessons. One has to live a long life to gain wisdom...”

Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was a great Lakota leader by 1876, who led his people in resistance against United States policies. “The people knew Sitting Bull was a wise man, not so much because he could draw on his own wisdom, but because he didn’t hesitate to seek it from his elders,” says Marshall.

Where are our elders?

Here, then, lies the book’s key question: “Sitting Bull could join the other elders in the center of the village. Where, today, are our elders? Have we placed them in the center of the village so that their experience and insight, their wisdom, can flow outward?”

What was true about elders’ rule of wisdom was also true throughout much of ancient Chinese history, where elders were the treasure of a family and of a nation.

It’s a pity that being young for the sake of being young has become a fashion in modern politics and business from the West to the East.

There’re exceptions, for sure, but on the whole, elders are now being talked about largely in the context of an aging society as if they are a growing burden to nations as well as to families.

Can we think otherwise?

Dare we extend the political or business life of many an elder so that our society becomes wiser?

Instead of asking who should retire at what age, we should beg our capable elders to stay and share their age-old wisdom with us.


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