From the youngest age, I was taught to respect those who were “older” than I was, and this “rule” or tenet was very curious to me. Why should I show respect to someone simply because they are older, even if I didn’t know anything about them and especially if didn’t particularly like them? This is a cultural tenet that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and in many other cultures.
When I visited China in my early 20’s, I saw something that has stuck vividly in my mind ever since – the parks were filled with old people who seemed happy and content. They were exercising, playing chess, playing instruments, singing opera… Some were just sitting there, watching or chatting. They didn’t particularly pay much attention to me as a foreigner because they were ok with whatever they were doing and enjoying the moment. It led me to think hard about why old people in America seemed so much more isolated and lonely (at least, that was my impression at the time and still is in many ways).
To be happy, most of us need to be active and need social interaction. As human beings, we recognize that other people are ourselves in some way – whether they are of a different race, a different color, a different culture, young or old. But when it comes to old people, many of us shy away because we don’t want to see ourselves getting old, losing our physical strength and beauty and losing certain abilities to do what we did before. It may feel more inviting to want to take care of a child because you can influence their growth and because they are naturally less inhibited and new to many experiences. But I feel lucky every time I meet an old person. It doesn’t matter if they are set in their ways or old or crabby. And whatever their stories may be, they have something to share and to give, pieces of wisdom and of life.
We all have difficulties. But when we are young, we feel invulnerable. We know that we are physically fit and beautiful and have our whole lives ahead of us. And then, as we grow older, we realize that our parents are visibly growing older. We also realize that our parents have made mistakes. They’re not invulnerable. We may feel angry and disappointed when we realize that our parents are not the perfect people who we wish them to be and that they have a lot of say in our lives. We also recognize, on some level that someday we will also be old, and, for many, find ourselves confronting our own emotions about our parents and about ourselves when we have children. And some of us may had to confront our mortality, disabilities or limitations for other reasons.
I have met many old people who have very rich lives, whether they are rich or poor. It is true that many of them struggle with loss of hearing or sight or have difficulty carrying their groceries, simple things that a lot of us take for granted. Some of them reminisce a great deal about the past. But their past and present is important. I will tell you why – old people have lived and survived. They have witnessed a great deal of change, whether in the larger world or on personal levels. They have experienced many joys and disappointments, and they remain, in spirit, young and timeless. Despite their physical limitations, they are, in many ways, more accepting and wiser and have something to teach us.
Perhaps you have observed that older people often become more childlike. Sometimes they have less control of their emotions. In some ways, they become like children again. I have observed grandparents with their grandchildren, and, often, it seems to me that grandparents are much more free in spirit and less uptight than the child’s parents. They care less about other people’s opinions. They have learned to accept on many levels what simply happens in life – past, future and present – and recognize that the world changes, people change, in whatever way, that their parents and friends grow old and sometimes die. And if you listen – they all have incredible stories to tell.
But why is this important to us? We can learn from older people’s stories and spirits so that we can recognize and become more accepting of change and that change in our lives is inevitable. Most old people have worked very hard. Many have sacrificed for their children. They have suffered, for better or for worse. But if we don’t respect the elderly, in many instances, many feel their lives are empty and unimportant which also has an impact on their physical and emotional health and on our society. Isn’t it better if we help take care of the elderly so that they can continue to feel valued, stay healthier, share their wisdom, stories and spirit? To do this, it is important to help people as they grow older. We all need help during our lives but especially as we find our capacities diminished.
In China and other cultures which place an emphasis on respecting older people (as opposed with American culture which tends to glorify youth), this respect for the elderly gives them a sense of well-being and makes for a more beautiful, rich and happier society. When a person has a sense of respect and well-being in society, it makes everyone else around them feel good, whether you are young or old. When I saw the old people in the parks, I was amazed and felt hopeful and good.
I have to come to the conclusion that older people in China receive a great deal more respect from society (along with other factors, such as continuing to be an integral part of their children’s lives), and this respect helps make them feel less marginalized and healthy in all ways. Unfortunately, for many elderly, this sense of well-being, which is good for all of society, is threatened in the face of the fast-paced demands of modernized society. (Here is a link on the increased rates of suicides amongst the elderly in South Korea due to modernization. I want to emphasize, by the way, that I don’t mean to post this out of any disrespect for Korean culture. Much of the same is happening in China and elsewhere in the world where people are facing similar challenges.)
Old people are often stubborn and often don’t want to accept help. But it’s our responsibility to be proactive and take care of them because they have taken care of us. And for ourselves, in our old age (which someday, hopefully, you will be lucky to experience), as stubborn and independent as you may be, wouldn’t you feel healthier and better if you knew people respected you as an important part of society, for what you have given and can continue to give? This helps elderly people to remain healthy and productive. And this helps all of us.
In practice, this only means that we spend more time with elderly people. That’s all it takes. And society, not to mention our own persons, is better off because of it.