When Wisdom is Not Found: What Older People Are For
By Zhen Dao
“What are older people for?” So asks a frustrated 17-year-old, quarantined with his family due to Covid-19. He is not unique in his frustration. Although there are, of course, during this urgent time, countless examples of younger people taking great care of the elderly in their lives, and revaluing those relationships precisely because of this necessary vigilance, care, and, in many cases, novel intimacy, there is nevertheless a sentiment of resentment toward the elderly that seems representative of a large swath of the young.
Henceforth, in this essay, “the young” is not meant to be a comprehensive term, but would indicate only those of the younger generations who would blame the frailty of the old for the bewildering arrest of their normal lives. And for these, bewilderment seems to be becoming a kind of outrage, a kind of mutiny of the young within their collective unconsciousness, as quarantines continue with no definitive end in sight.
For the lives of the young have all but come to a halt, as have the lives of us all. Our lives have come to a halt, we would explain to this bright and normally quite considerate boy, or young man, depending on the prism one is looking through — our lives have been halted in order to keep massive numbers of older and frailer people from dying unnecessarily, if we can help it. “Helping it” means all of us staying home so that contagion is slowed and hospitals might better be able to deal with the crises.
But our young friend has a love interest he cannot kiss, and friends he cannot embrace, and wild and sweet times of irretrievable youth that are slipping through the sieve of his restless hours. Connecting his “house arrest” to curtailing the mortality curve of the elderly represents too hard a calculus for him to bear at such a time in his life… as youth.
But why is it too hard to bear? One could answer quite simply that he feels that his life is unfairly passing him by, that by the sheer virtue of youth itself he is entitled to live his life, as it were, immediately. Because of the frailty of the elderly, he is being robbed of that right, for what is youth if not “the right of immediacy.”
Therefore, in protest, the longing for his gratification overwhelms his capacity for consideration, and he would sacrifice the old in order to more immediately live, which sentiments we might understand as “youth.” For under any circumstances, not just those of a pandemic, the virtue of youth is self-absorption. I use virtue in a Daoist sense, and without irony, meaning that which is germane to the essence of a thing: that which is most felicitously aligned with world and time, according to its context in world and time.
Youth thinks about itself, and it is proper for young people to think only — or almost only — about themselves. For soon they will be cajoled out of self-absorption by experience, which teaches one that one’s experiences and others’ experience are not so distinct as one once thought, and eventually nearly one and the same in tone if not in detail. And therefore suffering, one learns in time, is mutually instructive: we learn from others’ pain how to bear and negotiate our own, and we teach others about pain from the experience of our own.
This understanding of sympathy is the foundation of care. The word sympathy has beautiful etymological origins. It comes from the Greek "sympatheia,” meaning “fellow feeling”: "syn” meaning “together + “pathos,” meaning “feeling.” But the word grows perhaps more beautiful in the middle ages, as it takes on a medical meaning that verges on the spiritual: to soak a cloth with medicine and the selfsame blood of the wound that one would heal. So the blood of the wound is what cures the wound, when it is mixed with the “attitude” of the medicine. Pain, in other words, is essentially sympathetic to itself. And that understanding is how and why we care.
But if we go back to our true, our perhaps too true, that is, facile answer above, that youth is virtuously self-absorbed, we cannot quite get the pulse of the current outrage of the young against the old. There is in their disdain something more, a quality of asperity that feels like an unleashing of repressed resentment toward the old — and so it is. The young are angry, very angry, at the old, and have been for a long time. If you ask our young friend why he reasons that old people matter less than the young, and should be sacrificed so that we can end this virus by defeating it with strength, and thus get back to “our” lives, he will likely explain that the elderly have already lived their lives, and besides, they’ve “fucked up the world.”
He might point out the president of the United States, himself the age of an “elder,” who turns every interaction into a playground of atavistic drives that only elementary school children might somatically understand. Everyone around him, almost all of them “old,” is hence in a kind of impotent freeze, and to disguise their impotency they celebrate the president’s infancy—and no one’s accumulation of years, it must seem to the young, confers upon one a natural power to denounce what is shameful, and to sway the tide of thought and of action, of any kind.
To most young people, these are the visible old: impotent to adjudicate, or to mightily praise, or intelligently disdain. The rest are all but disappeared. Are we better off as a society that the elderly are disappeared, hidden, and ignored? No, our young friend might allow, mouthing the negation like a ventriloquist fueled by some distant echo of archetypal instinct that tells him that we somehow “need” the elderly. But only, he might add, if they are vitally old, necessarily old—in other words, wise.
But wisdom, our young friend might observe, is nowhere to be found among the old. And we cannot say with the grit of our honesty that he is wrong. Why is this so? Were the elderly disappeared by the society, and therefore they lost their wisdom? Or did they lose their wisdom and so were disappeared? Neither, would be my answer. And herein lies our difficulty as we try to explain to our young friend why the elderly are important, perhaps even more important than the young.
In order to teach the young about the value of the old we must bring the young into the experience of awe, for awe, unlike surprise or shock, cannot be commodified — and because young people’s lives, indeed most people’s lives, are dominated by consumerism, what can be codified cannot be trusted. Awe is its own province of authenticity. We might, then, as many peoples in many times have done, speak about death as the destination and ultimate purpose of a life, rather than the end of life’s opportunities. We might introduce to our young friend the idea that the soul is a boat, a small boat sailing over great and mysterious seas; that littered throughout this great ocean of time are continents of experience, where one’s brave actions begin to shape one’s body and one’s “self” around the unique contours of one’s soul.
But the soul is a creature of audacity and recovery, and the soul cannot understand itself only through its actions. Time is the atmosphere that the soul solicits, in order to understand itself. For everything that happens to one in a life, or everything that one makes happen, happens as if in the laboratory of action. Youth is often action upon action, and the bewildering psychological spins after actions make one begin to age, that is to contemplate, long before one is “old.” But not until action is reflected to itself does one begin to gain meaning from one’s actions. Time, then, is the laboratory by which and through which one makes meaning. Time is life made understandable. And as one draws closer and closer to death, one gains an ever clearer sense of why one lived — but only if one is not afraid of time.
To be unafraid of time, one has to be interested in the soul. One has to believe that each soul has its destined sensations and considerations, and to miss these is to miss one’s life. Contemplation of one’s actions, reflection upon one’s “misses,” then, is essential for guiding one’s boat toward the unification of one’s events with one’s understanding. The nearer one is to death, the greater is one’s opportunity for understanding. Indeed, as one ages, one would become one with time. And time is the unknown, because time, being greater than all circumstance, cannot be calculated upon for results.
Young people, in the vicinity of the elderly, would in this regard be in awe of so strange and extraordinary a pulsing as these living embodiments of the unknown, these human mysteries of time, these seasoned ones who can no longer be bought or sold or coerced, because the self-reunion happening in time, for the elderly, is more important than circumstance. The elderly, then, would be radicals grown immune to manipulation in time. In other words, they would know themselves by virtue of being so actively engaged in the process of knowing themselves. As such, they would be the greatest anarchists of the civilization, and the rightful heroes of the young.
But in a society monomaniacally obsessed with producing and earning, and disdainful of reflecting and knowing, those who age grow surreptitiously less “useful” to that society. As the decades of productivity end, not having the encouragement nor the psychological education to vitally contemplate their lives, they begin to think of themselves as dead, as taking up space, rather than beginning to embody the space of time, which is understanding. Thus, they loose the impetus to embrace the greatest journey of all: the unification of action and reflection that makes wisdom. This resignation constitutes a terrible kind of math as it mixes with the nihilism of the young: the elderly disappear from sight when they cannot produce, and so disappear, even to themselves; likewise, faith in meaning and the mystery of life disappear from the young when the elderly are not visible.
But if the elderly do not evince their existential necessity through wisdom, I would contend that it is not their fault. Wisdom has forms, and these forms need benefactors, custodians, and chaperones, for all wisdom is not stereotypically, stunningly wise. There is the wisdom of patience, the wisdom of endurance, the wisdom of humor, the wisdom of idiosyncrasy, the wisdom of surrender, the wisdom of routine, the wisdom of spontaneity, the wisdom of confrontation, the wisdom of subtle intelligence, the wisdom of perspicacity, the wisdom of risk, the wisdom of prudence, the wisdom of failure and recovery, the wisdom of the fleeting and the temporary, the wisdom of the lasting, the wisdom of sacraments, the wisdom of irreverence, the wisdom of small joys, the wisdom of loss, the wisdom of epiphany, the wisdom of tears, the wisdom of laughter, the wisdom of time itself, for the patterns of time make a map of the body and the soul, one that is replete with subtle signs, warnings, directions, and inspirations alike as to the nature of experience.
So, who are these chaperones? They are the middle-aged. For it is not the young who have abandoned the old, but the middle-aged; and this is the main point of this meditation. If young people are not in awe of the elderly, it is the fault of those of us who are middle-aged. It is we who are obsessed with youth, addicted to productivity, resistant to time, and in denial of the wisdom of aging. It is we who have shirked our duties as officiates in this marriage of life and death. We have abandoned the old to value time on their own, and in a world hostile to reflection and knowledge.
Of course they are not “wise.” Of course they are lost, abandoned, like storytellers wandering around the rubble of their lives with no audience but the stones they kick at listlessly. And of course the unknowing young deem them worthless and expendable. For those stones are television and computer screens, “shows,” films, infosphere entertainments where the lives of the young play across their wilting constitutions ceaselessly, and make them nostalgic for lives they did not live, instead of connoisseurs of silence, sounds, and furies of the body and the mind, senses and sensibilities, memories, all these arts of reunion that are the province of the old.
So if I am middle-aged, addressing my frustrated young friend, what do I tell him? Or, more precisely, who would I find myself to be in the presence of his anger? I would find myself to be someone not entirely impressed with the seeming clarity of his youthful passions. I would distrust his confidence, even as I loved him and sought to build his confidence carefully. I would see that his passions are throbbing in a small thimble of life, called youth, and that, though his concerns are to be listened to and cared for, they are not representative of all the world, that the world is much larger than his finite passions seem to speak for. For I, being middle-aged, have lived the passions he but intimates, and I am uneasy with his simplistic passion, and would represent to him enduring complexity, even at the cost of his immediate understanding.
Thus, I would poke gentle holes in the microcosm of his thimble, by helping him to awe. I would let in the starlight of time, by sharing with him the rigors of my soul’s self-education, my own provisionality to myself, which is mystery. I would allow him to see how life is working on me, how death is trying to educate me about myself; how mortality is making me brave, even as I grow more tender. And I would not emulate his angers because they are seductive to my own disappointments. I would keep my angers nuanced, and not capitulate to his simplicity. I would therefore ask him, in my atmosphere, to exist in the realm of inquiry rather than resolution, and I would not pretend to be unwise if I were wise, even to gain his solidarity, which might feel like love.
Only then will I earn my old age, for myself, above all, and secondarily for him. For he is not my purpose, love him as I do. If I am to become an elder, for him and for others, I must live a life right now, in middle-age, that becomes his purpose. Then, even now, even as his life and dreams sit idle in the port of his great possibility, he will see through me to the elderly, and know why they must live and longly live, so that we might find them and see them and be confounded by mysterious time in their presence, and see our circumstances a little cheaper in their unfathomable eyes, which will make us want all the more to live, and to live utterly.
Zhen Dao is the founder of the philosophy of Post-Daoism and the MogaDao practice tradition. She is a writer on a wide variety of spiritual, philosophical, and cultural subjects. She was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and has published fiction with Penguin Books. She lives in a small cabin deep in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she teaches classes at the MogaDao Institute and writes the scripts and develops the choreography for the SACRA: Immanence Theater Company. In addition to directing SACRA, she is also a player in the company.