We Need to Hear Quiet, Old Voices

So here we are: a fresh week and a fresh crop of news. Russian soldiers are in Ukraine. Chinese families grieve those lost to a knife attack in a railway station in Kunming. Inspiring South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius stands trial for murder. A California state senator takes a leave of absence in the face of corruption charges. Hundreds of college students celebrate their arrests at a peaceful protest over the proposed Keystone pipeline outside the White House. And perversely, 50 percent of the homepage at CNN.com is dedicated to links for news about last night’s Academy Awards ceremony.

In their essence, none of these news items is new. Events just like them have happened before, sometimes frequently. Some have happened recently enough that many of us can remember them firsthand. But to young people, each day’s events can appear new and can seem to require responses that haven’t been invented yet. Sadly, the people in the best position to put things in perspective are those whose voices we rarely hear.

For our elders, no event should be truly new. They might be just as sad, just as grieved at each day’s evidence of what humans can and will do to each other. They might never stop hoping for better. But most simply aren’t easily surprised by human nature.

When I was growing up, I used to wonder why my parents and other adults so rarely got truly excited about what was happening in the world. They didn’t seem to react with the level of either enthusiasm or horror I expected. I remember once watching news coverage of a military operation, my attention riveted to the TV, my mind sifting the implications and thinking I may be witnessing the start of World War 3, while my grandma sat calmly knitting and eventually fell asleep in her favorite chair. I just couldn’t understand her lack of animation.

Now I’ve reached an age that allows me to understand a bit: In a way, she’d seen it all before. After all, as the wise and jaded writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now” (1:9-11).

He was right.

For most people, age does bring moderation in many forms–this modulating perspective is one of them. If you were paying attention the last time this kind of history happened, you have a pretty good idea where it will lead, what will come next, and how it will end. You know what needs to be done and what our responses will cost us.

While the world’s median age is 28.4 years, the American population (typical of developed countries) is old, with a median age of 36.8 years. Yet we surround ourselves with an overwhelming chorus of young voices.

TV screens are ruled by the young. The Internet is choking on youthful voices. Bloggers, social networkers, and most of the people who are famous for nothing are overwhelmingly young. And if we want to hear the voices of those older and wiser than these, we have to make a special effort to find them.

So as we face the ever-rolling news feed in a world that has lost some of its connective tissue, we are missing the voices of people who have valuable perspective. Perspective that can calm us, soothe our fears, assure us we will survive, instruct us. As we pressure the aging to preserve their youth, we worship the young and stupid. Of course, not all young people are stupid, but our culture has a way of reinforcing their wishful delusion that they have nothing to learn, and we sure have a way of elevating the worst among them. We are not hearing many of the voices we should, and without their stories, we are collectively far more stupid than we should be.

The older I get, the more I want to learn from people older than me–but the more their voices are drowned in a sea of blather. I’m going to watch and listen to my elders more attentively. And I’m going to pay attention so that after a few more sunsets I’ll be able to recognize the glint of history on a shiny new world and I’ll have perspective to share with those who will listen.

  1. Colleen Ward says:

    I don’t like thinking the old & wiser people of this world have been dismissed most in in the most recent decades and that it has caused them to not bother to voice what they believe and have found to be true. I agree, we need to ask them more and listen more.

  2. Vicki says:

    Good thoughts, Amy. I have observed this in America during our furlough. (In Latin America, there is still respect for the elderly and for those with years of experience.) Thanks for verbalizing this concern.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.