Respect Your Elders

This past week, I heard a talk by Terry Farish, author of the YA novel, The Good Braider. I had read an early draft of the book in my Editing class, and I was eager to hear Terry speak. Her book is a delicate story about a harsh subject—that of Sudanese refugees. In the talk, someone raised the topic of the relationship between parents and children in different cultures and Terry replied by quoting one of the Sudanese she had interviewed for her book:

“In this country [United States], parents respect the children; but in my country, the children respect the parents.”

This observation goes to the heart of what is worth respecting and also to the heart of the two cultures. In a culture of tradition, like that of Sudan, it is the parents who have the knowledge and the children respect them for that. In the United States, the culture is one of rapidly changing technology and the children have the knowledge to use this technology––more than the adults since the children are growing up with it.

But there’s something missing in a culture that respects its children over its adults for their fluency in technology. Since we, in the United States place such value on the new, we have been misled as a culture into thinking that youth is better than age.

While it’s nice to admire our children’s proficiency at mastering technological change, it’s important to remember that it is simply, as my husband Richard Sachs says “the ability to process information that someone else has put out there”.

Deeper than fluency in technology and by and large missing from our culture is the role of the elders (and by elders, I mean adults). The elders’ value lies in their life knowledge. If we take away the bells and whistles of society, we have what we have always had: people looking for a community and people looking to express themselves in a satisfying way. These are the urges that are part of our human legacy and the elders have lived these urges over and over. They know that life is a cycle; that it will be good, it will be bad, it will be interesting, it will be boring. And most importantly, they know that all that is just fine. 

As a dear elderly friend often said to me as I poured out my teenage heart to her: You are so young. That always comforted me. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I was young. I was finding my way. This is what the elders offer. The wisdom of perspective.

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