I originally published a version of this blog on December 6, 2020. I wrote it then in response to an article in the New York Times asking what America needed to fix. In the intervening six months, our lives have gone from COVID-confinment to re-opening because of the collective efforts of individuals in government and private industry to get everyone vaccinated. We continue the hard work of confronting racism and now celebrate Juneteeth as a national holiday. We are confronting the overt attempts at undermining our democracy. We are re-claiming our lives.
The post-pandemic momentum is increasing. To ride this wave of change will take vigilance, skill, and a commitment to seeing things through to the end. We must guard against falling into bad habits. Like the beginning of any lifestyle change, we need to stay course, even after the flush of newness inevitably disappears.
I have had several careers in my lifetime, all of which involved identifying problems, exploring solutions, and then implementing strategies to change circumstances for the better. Making our nation better requires that we each be responsible for ourselves and the impact our words, behaviors and choices have on others.
As a psychologist, I have spent countless hours exploring these very elements with people who experienced differing degrees of guilt, shame, and remorse in coming to terms with themselves and the choices they made. While I was able to offer different approaches and help them re-frame these stories, the ultimate solution was not to fix themselves, but rather to accept themselves.
Making our nation better requires that we accept the fact that we have been given incredible opportunities and have squandered too many, ignored quite a few, and done some things worthy of praise and repetition. It requires that we accept our failures instead of forging ahead and just creating new problems. It requires that we pause, reflect, and consider whether or not to proceed at all. Making our nation better requires that, for the moment at least, we reflect on all that has happened and consider doing things differently as we move forward.
This is a lesson understood by those of us living with bodies that are breaking down, minds that wander in labyrinths of memories while trying remember names, and have metabolisms that are slower and less efficient. This is a lesson in understanding the long-term benefits of resisting immediate gratification. This is a lesson teaching us that that if we had paused rather that acted impulsively in our youth, we would have the luxury of different choices now. But you don’t learn these lessons until you get to be a certain age.
Keep Your Eyes on the Horizon
We are at a critical juncture in the history of our nation. While the pull is to stay focused on the immediate future, it is up to those of us who have experienced difficult times to keep our eyes on the horizon and remind those who have not yet developed the skills to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty that we can and will make it through.
We are waking now, hungover from a memorable binge of good times (admittedly not for all), excess and indulgence in online consumption of goods and ideas, and a promise of a brighter future. All along there have been voices telling us there would be consequences. We are just beginning to come to terms with our withdrawal, and will need steady hands to guide us through the coming days where the consequences of our actions are no longer able to be ignored.
There are those among us, myself included, who welcome this accounting.
As elders, we need to speak up! For we offer evidence that the present moment is just one in a chain of moments that stretches forward and backward, and merely holds our attention for now. We are the living evidence that we can survive this present and make a future. We must take advantage of those among us who daily make use of their wisdom. Instead of waiting around to be asked, we need to step into the breach and offer our services.
One of my favorite books is titled, “What Are Old People For?” I believe our central purpose is to be the holder of memories. To share those memories and help put our current experience into context. To share our wisdom borne of our lifetime experience. We have been here before. We know we made mistakes last time. Let’s not make them again!
How do you answer the question, “What Are Old People For?” In these most extraordinary of times, what is your role? What are you contributing? How are you engaging with life? I suggest that you are incredibly valuable and that you are in great demand.
What Is Your Role?
I clearly see what my role is as a wise elder. I am charged with keeping alive the legacy of the past. Not idealizing it, not romanticizing it. Taking from the past the crucial elements that are necessary for our survival and ensuring that these are passed on to the next generation. Acting from hard-won knowledge that holding on to resentments only makes the pain worse. Holding the line and keeping those who would do harm to the community in check. Seeing that they are disciplined not out of revenge, but out of reconciliation. Creating community. Ensuring that all members within our communities are cared for. Guaranteeing that there is enough for all by fostering gratitude not greed. Providing an example of what can be, by being it.
Over and over again, during this pandemic sequestration, I was brought to tears listening to stories of pain arising from people feeling marginalized because of their age, made a target because of their skin color, gender, choice of partner to love, or because of housing or economic status. This is not the first time this kind of suffering has happened in our country.
What COVID did was to shine the light on how these things continue to impact each and every one of us. As a wise elder, my role is not to say, “See! I told you so!” My role is to say, “Let’s start over and see if we can do better.”
If You Have the Means
What is one thing that you can do to fix our nation? Be a better you. If you have the means to offer relief to others, then do so, whether it be by sending money to charity or by saying something kind to someone. If you have the means to provide shelter, food, and safety, then do so and inspire others to join you in that effort. If you have the means to influence others in taking steps to be healthy, then do so, knowing your efforts are making a difference in all our lives. If you have the means to reduce worry in others, then do so by wearing a mask, staying home, and reaching out to family and friends to assure them they are loved and valued by you. If you have the means to pray, then do so, and pray for all those who are lost or in need of support, direction, and comfort. If you have the means to bring joy or laughter or delight to others, then do so freely and energetically.
And if you think you don’t have the means to do anything, then just love yourself. Sometimes it is in pausing and doing nothing that the greatest of all transformation happens.