In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter which he addressed “To my elderly brothers and sisters!” In it he reviewed Biblical passages pertinent to the elderly, reflected on the role of the elderly in society, and provided pastoral guidance to both older and younger adults concerning the problems of the elderly. Here’s a paragraph that is particularly rich:
“Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.”
It’s common to attribute wisdom to older adults; what I find interesting is that John Paul identified the source of such wisdom as life’s vicissitudes. The people who have had sudden changes in fortune—who have seen sure success turn to devastating failure, or who have had a sudden windfall just when things looked the bleakest—acquire a perspective unlike that of those fortune hasn’t varied. They appreciate the fragility of human accomplishments and are modest in their expectations about how matters will come to an end. Marilyn McIntire tells of the rabbi who, when a member of his congregation was happy about some event, asked, “How do you know it’s not a disaster?” When a congregant was despondent, he asked, “How do you know it’s not a blessing?” Only someone who has often tasted of life’s vicissitudes would have such questions.
John Paul’s description of the elderly as guardians of our collective memory is also apt. For many years, my father, who served in World War II, spoke to elementary school students on Veteran’s Day. He would put on what he still had of his uniform—he could no longer button the jacket, but no matter—and gathered pictures his buddy, a military photographer, had taken. He hadn’t seen combat—he was a supply sergeant—but was close enough to the fighting to be able to give a first-hand account of the devastation that occurred. Children were invariably transfixed. Often, the children sent letters of appreciation expressing dawning awareness of what the war was like. What was important, of course, was not that they learned a little history but that they experienced a living connection to that history. To be taught facts about a war is one thing; to have a participant stand before you and tell what that war was like is something else entirely.
A mature perspective on life’s vicissitudes and living memories of the events which have shaped us—both of these are tremendous gifts to younger generations. Having as we do a large contingent of elderly adults, our society is richly blessed with wisdom and story—if only we take the time to sit and listen.