If there is a reward for longevity, it is paid out in the form of wisdom, a quality of consciousness that has little to do with intelligence/I.Q. or book learning. "It is the characteristic of wisdom," said Thoreau, "not to do desperate things." Paul Baltes, Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, puts it even more succinctly, "Wisdom has no extremes." It is the stuff of Aristotle's Golden Mean.
You Can't Eat Wisdom
Wisdom, however, doesn't (necessarily) put food on the table. What's rewarding about the benignity of wisdom is it makes us nicer mammals, fostering a mellow outlook, a tolerance of uncertainty, and the inclination to pay attention to others -- characteristics that contribute to a happier, healthier old age. The latter benefit -- paying attention to others -- is worthy of closer scrutiny.
Wisdom only can be actualized through the sharing of it. Other human qualities, such as talent, can be enjoyed in isolation. (True, musicians or painters, and even writers, receive more pleasure as well as manna when they share their talent with an audience. Yet artists receive pleasure when hearing/seeing themselves do good work.)
Wisdom Retained Is Wisdom Wasted
Wisdom is expressed by means of the written or spoken word (preferably the latter). The function of language is for the exchange or sharing of information. Thus wisdom requires a giver and one or more receivers. And it is up to the receivers to decide if what the giver has given qualifies as wise. A would be 'Wise Man' who sits contemplating his navel on some windswept Himalayan crag cannot be considered wise until he is joined by one or more others who will certify his words as wise. Unless or until that exchange happens the guru is no different from the unheard sound of a falling tree. Has it indeed made a sound? Fallen?
Who Needs It?
It would follow that those of us who have acquired a modicum of wisdom are obliged to share it. The question is: with whom? If those most in need are those most lacking in wisdom, the younger generation in general and teenagers in particular would seem the preferred recipients. But as any wise man or woman well knows, teenagers have an aversion, something approaching a psychological allergy to any information (especially in the form of advice) coming from anyone over thirty. Whether or not this is evidence of Nature's contrariness or a cultural aberration, there are ways to lower teenagers' resistance. These ways have to do with packaging: the manner and means of sharing.
In primitive societies, elders held regularly scheduled counsels with the tribe's pubescent members. Collective wisdom was inculcated by means of formal ritual and informal strolls in the forest.
The closest our modern society comes to fostering similar associations are mentorship programs sponsored by do-gooding organizations like churches, service clubs, civic groups, and ethnic assemblies of one sort or another. These are good as far as they go. Trouble is, they don't go far enough. The extant mentorship programs seldom reach the young people most in need and most at-risk: inner city youth. Their need to belong and be counted is filled by run-amok gangs whose savage ethos have turned our urban centers into howling jungles. Misguided welfare programs encourage poverty-level fathers to go AWOL creating a values vacuum of such proportions that even the most ambitious mentorship program would seem to be an exercise in futility.
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A Journey Starts With The First Step
But a journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step. That step might just be a supplement to the standard juvenile probation procedures now in place at various detention centers; an outreach effort initiated by a caring cadre of community elders. The program might work like this: When a young offender is released from custody on probation, he or she is assigned a volunteer mentor with whom the probationer is required, on penalty of being sent back to the Detention Center, to spend a minimum amount of time with -- say a half a day a week. This time would not be used in preaching, teaching, or any other kind of advice-giving. The elder's function, in the beginning, would be less an advisor and more a nonjudgmental listener (a role requiring a great deal of wisdom!) who lends an empathetic ear to whatever is on the young person's mind.
In most cases, these troubled teens are not going to be too forthcoming; probably they'll resent like hell these mandatory sessions. It may take many weeks, maybe months, before there is any kind of relationship with enough trust to encourage the teenager to solicit the elder's opinion. The terms of the association would control the kind and extent of any help the mentor might wish to volunteer. These are details, however important.
Once the probationary requirements have been met, it's up to the two parties as to the future, if any, of the relationship. The fact that it is a volunteer effort, devoid of selfish interest, sends a message that many young people never before have received. Someone really does care. Someone not driven by fear, duty, anger, or ambition wants to help. A disestablished someone devoid of the trappings of authority. Sort of a surrogate grandparent.
It goes without saying that 99% of the time, a black man will better relate to a black boy than a white woman.
This concept might also be applied as a preventative measure, working with advocacy organizations, inner city agencies (including the police department) and youth groups, even organized gangs. Or, in the case of first-time offenders, it could be applied as a substitute for incarceration.
The Flipside Of Puberty
Such a program's foundation rests on the mentor's 'senior' status. People past sixty are no threat to someone sixteen -- for the same reason grandchildren and grandparents get-along: they have a common enemy!
Certainly elder wisdom can be put to no better use than to help those who will be at the controls of Spaceship Earth in this new millennium. No other effort is apt to produce such meaningful results. Teenagers, however troubled they may be, are a lot closer to making their lives work than most adults; closer by virtue of not having had time to go far wrong.
The mold is hardening, but not yet set.
You Can't Lose
And whether or not you see any positive results produced from your mentorship, you will receive two payoffs:
1. associating with young people keeps you young in heart, and
2. When your mind is filled with someone else's problems there's no room to grow your own.
That second payoff is by far the most valuable. For this is the time of life when your vocation or profession occupies less of your mind -- leaving more and more room to entertain the anxieties that go with aging. (These concerns tend to expand in direct proportion to the amount of attention paid to them.) At this time of life, serving others serves your best interests. And what better way to counter seniors' selfish image than to be a benefactor instead of beneficiary; a patron rather than patronized.
In a culture that does not seek the counsel of its elder members, such a program would provide the missing rostrum. Becoming advocates for this country's most valuable (and endangered) resource is as worthwhile a cause as any you could undertake.
Countering the disposition of young and old to live in different worlds and maintaining continuity between generations is the traditional role of society's senior citizens. "Social intercourse between generations," observed John Jay Chapman, "is the basis for any civilized society."
In a variation on this theme, Marty Knowlton, the founder of Elderhostel (a worldwide educational program for seniors), has established a non-profit organization called Gatekeepers to the Future, dedicated to "the preservation and restoration of the earth and all its life."
No one is better equipped to be custodians of the Good Earth than those most familiar with it (and those most responsible for its present condition). By harnessing seniors' resources, knowledge, skills and wisdom, Knowlton has created a corps of solicitors for the otherwise unrepresented future generations.
Opening The Tap
The amount of wisdom presently going to waste in those wretched retirement compounds is an indictment of both the retirees and those who would benefit from their counsel. Dr. Ken Dychtwald, a Berkeley gerontologist and psychologist (who has worked for the California Department of Aging) acknowledges, "We've done a poor job creating opportunities for contribution by older people. Instead of asking what can we (the non-old public) do for the elderly, we should concentrate on providing the elderly with opportunities to do things for us, and for themselves."
It's a win/win situation when a society involves its seniors in the activities and interests of its junior members. The juniors gain invaluable counsel and services for little or nothing. The seniors gain self-esteem and a marked reduction in physical and emotional aches and complaints. Usefulness is a powerful preventative medicine.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher
Halo Books, San Fransisco.
About The Author
H. Samm Coombs has been active in the human potential movement since the 60's. He cofounded a self-realization center for young adults; an experience that inspired his phenomenally successful (4 editions, totalling more than 100,000 copies), TEENAGE SURVIVAL MANUAL, dealing with the flipside of the fifties. He also was behind ACT II, a workshop (now called 'Recovery Group') for the suddenly single. Mr. Coombs can be reached at [email protected]