Old Fears

(Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).

Baby Boomers will fondly remember Mork and Mindy, the sitcom of the late 70s and early 80s, which brought then-unknown Robin Williams to national fame.  The late comedian starred in the series as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, who comes to earth to learn more about human behavior.  Although they looked like us, Orkans were different from humans in every way possible, particularly in the way they aged.  Instead of entering the world as babies and growing into adulthood, they were hatched in adult bodies and matured into childhood.  This method of aging centered on their belief that the knowledge and experience that comes with age should exist in a young, energized body.  The episode entitled Old Fears concludes with Mork explaining to his extraterrestrial superiors how humans treat their elderly.

Robin Willams and Pam Dawber played the title roles in the 1980s sitcom, Mork and Mindy.

“I don’t understand it; here everything else gets more valuable as it gets older,” he says.

“Wine, cheese, furniture, coins. Everything except people. Here they ignore their ancient ones.

“The first thing to go is their hearing.”

When asked why that is, Mork says, “I have a theory about that.  I feel it’s because no one asks them anything.  Such a waste.”

Orkans understood something that we humans – particularly those of us in western civilizations – have yet to grasp, decades after the popular television series first aired. The fictional characters could very well have originated the saying that youth is wasted on the young.

I was reminded of this adage while surveying a recent Facebook post about who should qualify to be raised to the dignity of national hero of The Bahamas.  One commentator questioned why only old people made the list and suggested it’s time young people were “given a chance”.  What the writer failed to realize is that young people are given a chance, every single day.  In fact, they are given more “chances” than their predecessors could ever have dreamt of having.  They have at their disposal abundant energy, information at their fingertips, and rapidly advancing technology, unlike any generation before them.  But what they do not have is the wisdom that only experience can bring.

Which young person can compare to the contributions made by the likes of the noble statesmen who now hold the distinction of being revered as national heroes?

It took a lifetime for those men and women to lay the foundation upon which the modern-day Bahamas was built.  And although they made missteps along the way, their contributions to the development of this nation are supported by the evidence available to anyone who takes the trouble to do research.  They too were once young, and they put their youth to good use – without the benefit of the advanced tools young people have at their disposal today.

Today’s young people are given a chance every day – a chance to pay their dues and to make their lives matter, not just for themselves, but for those around them.

The eagerness to push older people aside is not good for national development.  Many seniors who are still able to make a contribution have lost their edge, not so much because of age, but because they have bought into the belief that their age has rendered them useless.  However, there is more than ample proof that it does not have to be so.

 

“We are not alone in our worry about both the physical aspect of aging and the prejudice that exists toward the elderly, which is similar to racism or sexism. What makes it different is that the prejudice also exists among those of us who are either within this group or rapidly approaching it. ”              ~ Jimmy Carter

 

In his book The Virtues of Aging, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter provides a wise, deeply personal reflection on the new experiences that come with age. Facing involuntary retirement after his defeat at the polls in the 1980 Presidential election at age 56, President Carter admits that he had no set plans for the future. However, he and wife Rosalynn, now in their 90s, chose to continue to lead full, active, productive lives.  They turned their attention to exploring new commitments and refused to become mentally lethargic. Besides serving at the Carter Center in Atlanta—a non-profit which they established to “wage peace,” “fight disease” and “build hope” throughout the world –the Carters both roll up their sleeves at least once per year to build housing for needy families as part of the Habitat for Humanity organization. His book offers sagacious advice on how older people can live an interesting and challenging life, strengthen interpersonal relations, maintain good health and face death with serenity.

Some may argue that there are no virtues in aging, but such an argument is without merit.  For starters, the alternative to growing old is dying young, and you won’t find many queueing up on that line.   Studies have shown that as we age, we hone qualities like altruism and self-control, which contribute to a higher self-esteem.

An elderly couple.

A study published by Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University showed that, as time passed over a 15-year period, subjects reported more positive well-being and greater emotional stability as they aged.  Negative emotions like sadness, anger and fear became less pronounced as opposed to the roller-coaster, drama-filled younger years.  Scientific polls have also revealed that stress and worry gradually decline from teenage years and reach a low point when a person turns 85 years old.  The older you get, the less you care about what other people think, and the freer you become to live your life in contentment.

Other benefits to aging include brain plasticity.  Contrary to the old belief that brain cells slowly die as we age, science now knows that our brains continue to grow neurons as we age and can reshape itself in response to what it learns. In other words, as long as we use it, we won’t lose it!   And while brain scans show that young people often use only one side of their brain for a specific task, middle age and older adults are more likely to utilize both hemispheres at the same time—a pattern known as bilateralization.  By using the full power of their brain, more mature people are better able to reason and problem solve when faced with difficult situations.

Studies have shown that the older we get, the clearer our priorities become.  Aging helps one to let go of the trivial and focus on the more important things in life.  This, in turn, leads to a wiser perspective.   One theory is that, following years of experience, older persons are able to call upon multitudes of ‘brain maps’ that have been developed, which help them to recognize and respond to similar circumstances when they encounter them again.  The more we age, the more of these maps we accumulate, offering a sense of effortless dexterity from our wealth of experiences.

Yet another study by Allison Sekuler, PhD showed that older subjects were better able to see the big picture as compared to their younger counterparts, who concentrated more on details to the exclusion of their surroundings.  This skill of taking everything into consideration can be especially valuable in the workplace where, according to a study by the Associated Press & NORC Center For Public Affairs, there is a higher degree of work satisfaction in older subjects.  For the first time ever, four distinct generations share the workplace: the Silents (mid-60s on up), Baby Boomers (mid-40s to mid-60s), Generation Xers (mid-20s to mid-40s) and Millennials (the newest members of the workforce). While the work and life experiences of each group are unique, the clearest divide is between the two oldest generations and the two youngest.  These studies suggest that perhaps it would benefit the corporate world to find a way to bridge the workplace generation gap, as opposed to being so quick to put aging workers out to pasture.

Older and younger workers can learn a lot from each other.  As so aptly put by Chuck Underwood, author of The Generational Imperative: Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room, “All the technological knowledge of younger workers doesn’t compensate for their lack of interpersonal time.” Older workers can teach younger ones about basic workplace interpersonal skills such as common courtesy and team play, while younger workers can bring their older counterparts up to speed on the latest technological advancements and help them to embrace change.

Are there any downsides to aging?  Of course, there are!  No matter how young one feels in the mind, as you age your body tends to remind you that you are no longer able to do what you once could during your younger years.  That being said, the pros of aging far outweigh the cons.  Perhaps the most rewarding benefit is the degree of self-appreciation and acceptance one acquires with aging.   After a certain age, you recognize how futile it is to try to be someone else or to make others happy to your own detriment.  The older you get, the freer and more courageous you become to simply be yourself.

If I could magically go back to the age of 25, with the tight body, small waistline and visible collar bones, would I do it?  Most certainly, but only under one condition; that is, that I could take with me the wisdom and sense of self-worth that I have acquired from the life experiences I have gained over the years.  Other than that, as Mork would put it, Na-NO Na-NO!