I’ve been reminiscing quite a bit lately about a time, a little over a decade ago, in which I’m convinced the world was a better place. Certainly our life as a family was in a better place, at least, but that isn’t the overall theme of this post. We were living in a different state, then, and had made close friends with a couple several years older than we were. I miss that relationship more than I can express today, as we enter a difficult period of life (perhaps more on that in a later post), because, whatever we went through in those days, this couple had experienced at some level. Job changes, moves, the birth of our first child, the loss of grandparents…they had experienced these life events, and were there to give us support, encouragement, and wisdom. We could learn how to walk through those events because of their experiences before us.
Historically, human beings have looked to people older than them for wisdom. Wisdom is an interesting thing. There’s an entire genre of Biblical writing dedicated to it, and we all crave it, even though we may call it by a different name. In the same way that the knowledge that you are not alone gives strength, the knowledge that someone else has experienced what you are experiencing (not in the abstract, but someone with whom you are actually close) and can give relevant advice is so life-giving. Even if that person gives no advice and is just present with you as you walk through a point in life, the awareness of their experience causes their presence to give you strength.
“Respect your elders” used to be the advice given to children, and gray hair was seen as a sign of honor.
Culturally and, I think, Biblically, there is a responsibility that comes with being that elder. There is, or at least should be, a social contract of sorts that says you will be present in the lives of your younger friends, that you will endeavor to give the best advice that you can when called upon, and to eschew the giving of advice on a area in which you don’t have experience. Getting older isn’t just getting discounts and free meals…you’ve lived through some stuff, and now you have a responsibility to assist others who are living through the same stuff after you.
In academia, this showed up in subtle ways. Older sources are respected, weighed more heavily. Newer research must stand up against rigorous review in order to contradict what has been known for some time. This places greater checks and balances against error or…dare I say this?….fake news. Today, though, in most disciplines, this is not the case. In technology specifically, newer is always better, older is always bad. That shiny new idea is to be revered simply because someone was able to do it, never bothering to ask whether or not it might be a good idea. Respecting the wisdom of elders here is almost impossible, because the elders are expected to abandon their experience in favor of the shiny new idea. The hive mind demands it. Old is bad. In with the new.
Which leads me to entertain the idea: what if we’ve created a world in which it’s impossible to trust in the wisdom of our elders?
What if we’ve ensured that nothing will function “the old way”, or at least not well (think of out-dated software)? What if we’ve altered the world so irrevocably that we’ve created enough black swan events that the wisdom of our elders doesn’t…even can’t…apply? Think about this dystopia for a moment. Events that can so drastically change society that there is no going back can, I would argue, invalidate certain specific wisdom by definition. Experiencing something like this once every few generations is recoverable. In my lifetime alone, though, I’ve seen so many….the invention of the Internet, the normalization of hate that followed the election of the first Black president of the U.S., the social upheaval during the Covid pandemic, artificial intelligence…each of which has shifted our culture in dramatic ways, ways from which it will not return. So many of these events in such a short period of time could cause some wisdom to just not apply any longer, and all of these events are events of our own creation.
I’m no longer young. I’ve gone through a lot of things in my life, and have things left to live through. As one gets older, though, there’s a certain comfort that experience brings. When moving to a new area, starting a new job or a new career, embarking on a new life journey, there is comfort and direction found in the ability to assume that, because certain things tend to go a certain way, those certain things are or are not good ideas in a given scenario. If we’ve managed to make our existence so unpredictable by our constant disruptions that we can longer count on this experience, then we may well have invalidated the wisdom of many who have gone before us. The hive mind wins. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
That is perhaps the most dystopian future that I can imagine, one that can’t be salvaged short of Divine intervention.