U.S. culture treats advanced age as a terminal illness and it treats those consumed by the “illness” as disposable. The quicker the better. Mexican culture, from what I understand, has a different perspective. Age equates to experience which, in turn, forms a foundation of wisdom. People fortunate enough to have survived many years of experience are, in Mexico, revered. This morning, as I was thinking about these conflicting cultural perspectives on age, I happened upon a Facebook post that included a few excerpts from a book by Paul Theroux, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip. One quote from the book, a recitation of a Mexican aphorism, struck me as particularly interesting: Más sabe el diablo por viejo, no que por diablo. Roughly translated into English, that says, “The devil is wise because he is old, not because he’s the devil.”
I wonder how it happens that some cultures hold the aged in high regard, while others view them as used-up, worn-out, and generally in the way? I wish I knew and I wish I knew how to reverse that perspective. But I don’t. I suppose the best way to try is to model the behaviors one hopes to see in others.
Yet I feel just a tad sheepish about automatically giving respect to someone simply because he or she has managed to say alive for many, many years. I have encountered plenty of people whose lengthy lives are almost certainly accidental; only by pure chance have these people not stepped in front of buses or drowned in the shower. These people exemplify the concept that: “They do not have ninety years of experience; they have one year of experience repeated ninety times.” That is, they have learned nothing of consequence by living so long.
But more people than not do not fall into that category of old and stupid. More people have, in fact, learned a great deal over the course of their lives, thanks to their ability to associate the meaning of different experiences at many different times of their lives. That may be a hard sentence to digest; they can rely on experiences from years ago to help interpret and give meaning to experiences years later. Maybe that helps explain it.
As usual, I’ve wandered off course. Why do our cultures hold such diametrically opposed perspectives about age? And how can our culture change to be more closely aligned with Mexican culture? I suppose the first step is to change our collective attitudes about our cultures and other cultures. That is, we need to acknowledge that our culture is not always “better” and other cultures are not always “worse.” We need to accept that our culture can learn from other cultures and can improve by adopting some of their perspectives and practices.
I suppose we teach children, from an early age, that older people are not as valuable as younger people. We train people to believe we reach our intellectual peaks around age 45 and decline precipitously thereafter. Somewhere along the line, 50 became the new 99; once a person reaches 50, he is unemployable. His knowledge and capabilities leaked from his head and cannot be recovered.
I have no practical solutions. I just write to complain. I have nothing else to contribute. I’m just sucking in air that should have been made available to someone younger.