Más sabe el diablo por viejo, no que por diablo

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.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to Más sabe el diablo por viejo, no que por diablo

  1. Bev, reading your comments about how things are where you live makes me want to move there! 😉

  2. bev wigney says:

    I think some of what is happening is one of those feedback loops. I was just giving this more thought and here in NS, there aren’t very many spaces in care centres for elderly people. Instead, because of that lack, the government has put more funding into programs to keep people in their homes longer and to bump up the paramedic services and in-home nursing care so that people can stay there and also not end up at the hospitals as much. For example, my elderly neighbour (now deceased) was given IV fluids at his house to deal with dehydration from chronic illness. I asked about that when I was in Ottawa and they seemed shocked that this kind of thing was being done outside of an ER department. Anyhow, all that to say that people stay in their homes longer here — we have a lot of residents in the hood who are in their 80s and sometimes 90s who still live independently. I noticed the same thing in Bisbee and the outlying areas. Outside of town, there was a new initiative just starting where they (sheriff’s office, I believe) was doing some kind of automated “check in” system for elderly — an opt-in thing — where people received a phone call each day to make sure everything was okay and if there was no answer, then I guess that was followed up with a human phone call or maybe a wellness check from someone. The thing that I would say about here in NS is that young people are very accustomed to seeing older people around, and in many cases, older people are living with their families until they die. That’s probably possible because more people work around the home, so there is someone around to do basic care. The jobs are either flexible hours, seasonal, something you go and do that is sort of self-employed like clam-digging, or field work on farms. That’s true for most rural families in Canada still — farm families often have an elderly parent living in the family home — often the farm was theirs and was passed on to the “kid” who took over and the parent just stays on. A lot of these kinds of arrangements just don’t exist in urban areas. The younger generation are often far from their home towns, following jobs — and the only way they will see their parents is if a parent decides to move *to* them to be closer when they themselves retire. In any case, I think the presence (or absence) of older people in a community has a lot to do with younger people’s perceptions. I know that young people around this area seem to still have a lot of respect for the knowledge and experience of their elders and seem to like to talk to them, don’t act patronizing, and like to spend time with “older folk” (like me). I didn’t feel that was the case when I was in the city. It’s like you’re invisible. Anyhow, it’s a topic that interests me a lot as I compare city to rural life — across the board. So many differences — which is why we are getting a lot of urban people moving to this area from all over Canada and beyond. It’s nice to be in a place where everyone at the stores and post office, library, etc.. know your name and don’t need to see your library card to get your name up on their computer screen and so on. It’s great going to the same mechanic at a small garage who knows your vehicle and knows what you want well enough that you just hand off the keys and say “fix it” and leave it for a few days and don’t have to worry that you’ll be gouged for a bunch of stuff that wasn’t needed (I don’t even bother asking for estimates or quotes). There are some things that maybe aren’t so good, but mostly, I just like that I’m not just one of the multitude in a city.

  3. John Swinburn says:

    I think it would be interesting to examine attitudes toward seniors (and toward death, etc.) in various places throughout North America to measure the differences between places. I suspect you’re right, Bev, that rural areas are “kinder” to us oldies than are densely-packed metropolitan areas. I’d guess, too, that TV and advertising have a lot to do with those attitudes, though I wonder how different the media environments are between them. I hope you’re wrong that the battle is not reversible, but I suspect you’re right. My education in sociology is bubbling up as I think about this. I’d love to have the wherewithal to explore these issues with some well-designed research that could provide some reliable answers (and maybe some dependable predictions of where we’re apt to be going in the years ahead). Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Bev!

  4. bev wigney says:

    Good post. I’ve wondered about many of these same points. Growing up as a kid in the 1950s and 60s, I think older people were given more respect and credit for the wisdom gained during a lifetime. That probably even continued into the 70s, but somewhere around the 80s, I think there was a rapid shift toward favouring youth and beauty above all else. I suspect a lot of this had to do with television and also product promotion through advertising. Older people were probably less taken in by new products (many of which are pretty much unnecessary — think expensive make-up, the latest fashions, junk food, toys, sexy cars, exotic vacations, noisy and violent movies, loud music). I think there was a conscious effort to create a cultural division between the cool kids and young adults — and the “oldies” who don’t want or “get” all of these never necessary items. I don’t watch tv, but my younger brother alerted me to something he and my mom had noticed in recent years, and that was advertising featuring outright disrespect to older people. He showed me a commercial for some kind of junky dinner food where a parent calls or messages a kid that dinner is ready and the kid tears home on his skateboard or bike (I forget which), splashing or shooting dirt at an elderly woman sitting on a park bench as he passes by. My brother had some other similar examples. I feel that a lot of this subliminal stuff has more impact than we realize. Another probably cause is that, in our new economy, once someone gets “old” — becomes a widow or starts to falter at all — the new way of dealing with that is that they should be shunted off into a “seniors’ complex” or some kind of retirement community or care centre where they are effectively “removed” from society. Having lived in my mom’s city for a year just a couple of years ago — I can compare that with here in Nova Scotia. We have a hell of a lot more seniors who stay in their homes here in NS. In Ottawa, it’s like “old people” don’t exist anymore — you rarely see them out on the streets, in a store, or taking a bus. So, where are they? Seems they are all herded into some kind of seniors’ housing or facilities. Old age has become something to be ignored and feared — just as death has become disassociated from life in modern American culture. People don’t do death very well anymore. That’s so counter to how things were maybe 40 or 50 years ago, and also counter to how they are in many countries that haven’t yet followed the U.S. (and Canada) down this cultural rabbit hole of death and age aversion. Fortunately, there are still pockets of the world where age and death are part of society — as you have seen in Mexico. I believe it exists here in rural Nova Scotia and probably in many rural areas across the continent. Unfortunately, I think the cultural powerhouses of tv, movies, etc.. are winning this battle and it’s probably not reversible — although I see glimmers now and then as the population demographics tip more and more in favour of we oldies.

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