The above article from The Atlantic made the rounds on my social media recently, and I found it to be worth the read. It is about how professional decline comes earlier than one might expect, and the author reflects on what he sees as his own professional decline.
Here, “decline” is how he describes the transition, observed in many cultures, from being someone who solves problems in novel ways (having what the author calls ‘fluid intelligence’) to someone who is primarily a teacher or mentor for others, who has more ‘crystallized intelligence’, or intelligence that is based on what one has already learned. In other cultures, they would call intelligence that comes from accumulated knowledge and experience, which is used to teach and to mentor – wisdom.
After some reflection, it occurred to me how absurd it is to view this process as decline. Absurd, and a little bit horrific (as my culture often is when I think about it carefully). It highlights how maladaptive our culture is, and one of the many ways we value the wrong things.
In many areas of life, even in the United States, we acknowledge that something has greater value because it is old. We feel this way about furniture, and architecture, and documents. This is why we have museums and special collections and archives. There is some survivor bias here – the things that have lasted seem like they must be of greater value. They have, in a way, proven themselves over the test of time.
As a materialistic, consumer culture, however, we crave novelty. For human beings, especially women, we view one’s youth as what gives them value, and see that value as diminishing over time. We are driven, by the fruits of billions of dollars of psychological marketing research each year, to crave more things and new things. Our whole society conspires to make us unwell, dissatisfied, and unhappy, because we would otherwise stop consuming. We are taught to fetishize novelty – the new product is valuable because it is new. The new idea is valuable because it is new. New art is valuable because it is new. This is strange because we are one of the only cultures in the history of humankind that thinks this way.
Oh Yeah We Hate Teachers Too
Many Americans treat teachers with contempt. Maybe not face to face, but the way we treat them, pay them, the way we fund schools, the thankless demands we place on them, all reek of contempt. Even lower than teachers are caregivers – people who care for children and the elderly are almost universally treated poorly and poorly paid. Don’t believe me? Go get a job at a nursing home right now, I dare you. It’ll be the hardest, most thankless job you’ve ever had, and you will not be able to live on what you are paid. We assume that people who would lower themselves to care for other human beings must be doing it out of a sense of martyrdom.
You can see it in the above article, and the mindset that it reflects (which is common and widespread) that one has to lower one’s self, to enter into decline, in order to teach and to mentor others. That is a demotion – we experience it as such, trained and acculturated as we are. A humane, rational society would see teaching and caring for other human beings as one of the most noble and important things one could possibly do. American society is neither humane nor rational.
Ubiquity of Elders
Every single culture on planet Earth developed such that elders were honored. Until very recently (the last few seconds on an evolutionary time-scale) that is a generalization that could be made about any culture, sight unseen. Even in the modern world, many cultures continue to value and honor elders. They are seen as wise, worthwhile, and as key contributors to a community. There is no surviving traditional society we know of that does not honor elders, and there are plenty of societies that have survived into the modern world that continue to do the same.
Now, why would every human culture in known history come to the conclusion that elders were to be valued? Let’s say fetishizing novelty was a good idea – if it was, then cultures that fetishized novelty would have flourished, displacing the ones that did not. Those cultures that honored stodgy elders who have faded away and lost out.
What we see is the exact opposite – cultures that fetishize novelty are committing collective suicide at a rate unseen in Earth’s geological history. We are dying in a conflagration of our own making. The cultures that honor the people that the above article sees as experiencing “decline” persisted for hundreds of thousands of years, and the cultures that ceased to do this are killing themselves and spreading poison and misery to a degree never before seen.
What If Age Is Not Decline?
It is very difficult to change a culture, and much of what changes a culture is surprising and out of anyone’s conscious control. The couple dozen people who read this blog post are not going to be able to get together and change our society so that age is not seen as necessary decline, but rather as a time where there is the potential for wisdom and for being able to share that wisdom.
We don’t value wisdom, as a society. We don’t know how to recognize it or seek it out. We don’t reward it or encourage it or honor it. We value novel solutions to ‘problems’ like “How do we produce more crap more cheaply?” and “How can we get more people to want to buy our crap?” We don’t realize that our solutions merely create more problems until it is basically too late, if ever. The billionaires are shipping consumer goods to our doors and building asinine hyper-loops while the people who are trying to teach and mentor have to take second and third jobs to pay their student loans.
Fetishizing novelty, among other things, is killing us. Predictably so, since every society to come before decided not to do that. But here we are. If we valued wisdom, we probably would be wise enough to see this happening and change.
A Place For Church
Yes, church. That place where we brainwash our kids (OK some of us do) and conspire to strip away basic rights (yes some of us do that too and it’s shitty). Church is also one of the only places in American society, in our novelty-fetishizing society, where old people are valued. Not in every church, but in most churches, and the idea of honoring elders is built into Christianity, and is something we might do well to highlight and feature.
Churches are full of old folks – why? Maybe because churches are a place, in contrast to families and professions and hobbies, where elders are honored. In my own tradition, to be an “elder” is to be an elected leader of the church who runs things and makes decisions. An “elder” does not have to be literally old, but almost all of them are over 55, and it is a position of leadership and worth and work that someone could easily maintain into their 80s.
In every other area of life I can think of, we partition off our elderly and place them in social ghettoes. Elders literally die from feeling useless, and commit suicide because they feel like they are a burden on their loved ones. When we talk about them, it is as a burden on society – how will we pay for all of these Baby Boomers collecting Social Security and living longer? Where will we warehouse them? How can we get them to stop watching Fox News?
Churches obviously have huge problems, but I do think that one way churches can and should be counter-cultural and adaptive is to be places where elders are not only valued, but also integrated with people of other ages and generations. It’s rare to have a group of people who meet every week in the same room, doing the same things, ranging in age from 6 months to 96 years – for my own context, we call that Sunday morning at church.