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Trading wisdom for youth


This year we’re studying ancient history and literature. In my opinion, combining the subjects is the only way to study any history or most literature: It gives you context for your literature and heart for your history. Now you only need a brain and your all set. Who needs courage? I digress. We are currently reading The Iliad after finishing David Ferry’s Gilgamesh.  (I also read Gilgamesh the Hero to the boys, and we’ll read either Black Ships Before Troy or The Children’s Homer when we get to that point in their history. It’s fun being the mom!)

Something that stuck out to me in both these works is a value that our culture has almost completely lost. When Gilgamesh retrieves the Plant of Life (er, spoiler!), instead of eating some for himself immediately, he wants to take some back to Uruk for the old men so that their wisdom and experience can benefit his city.

In the Iliad, we read this of Nestor:

Thus the old man wise in fighting from of old encouraged them.
Agamemnon the lord of men was glad when he looked at him
and he spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words:
‘Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady within you;
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of the fighters had your age and you were one of the young men!’

Now, two anecdotes do not a data set make, but there are other examples — in the Bible, for example — about the value of the wisdom that comes with age. And I don’t think the desire to marry the wisdom of age and the strength of youth is found only in these two isolated instances. But the emphasis in these examples is that the strength of youth would serve the wisdom of age. Would that Nestor was in a young body so that his wisdom could be combined with strength to aid the Greeks. Gilgamesh wanted to return the elders of Uruk to young bodies so that their wisdom wouldn’t be lost to the city. The emphasis here is that youthful strength is in service to the wisdom acquired by age.

In our culture, however, the wisdom that comes as we grow old is an afterthought, and certainly not elevated to a higher position than the benefits of youth. We  elevate the voices and opinions of the young. If the old want to be young again (and boy do they), they want not only the strength but also the perspective of youth. It’s not good enough to look young and feel strong, you have to be “hip,” too. Your tastes and opinions need to match those of 20 somethings, or at least need to be as cool as theirs. Isn’t that why the Rolling Stones still tour?

Youth, beauty, and strength have always been valued, of course. But that has been seen in contrast to the wisdom and experience of age. The trade off has always been thus: “Sure you’re young and pretty, but you’re still foolish. Don’t worry, you’ll get less foolish, but you’ll lose your youth in the process.”

We have more elderly people alive than ever before, but we are also more segregated by age than ever before. Our tendency is to shut older people away in their own conclaves. The number of octogenarians and even nonagenarians in our society is growing daily. But rather than be glad that we are gaining their accumulated wisdom, we have a man who has the president’s ear on matters of healthcare saying that we should all knock off at 75, and ads painting older people as the villains who vote.

The Voyage of Life dictates that each season has its own gifts. The beauty of community and family is that we are all at different stages in our voyage, and can render aid or receive it as needed. The ceaseless grasping to remain or regain the one specific season almost guarantees that we lose the gifts of the others.

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