The New York Times ran a piece on How to Fix America last week. They asked “experts” what one simple thing could be done to make our nation better. Responses came from economic experts, banking experts, anthropologists, high-tech gurus, education specialists, environmental entrepreneurs, politicians, even a cop! But nowhere in this list of experts were philosophers, religious/spiritual advisors, or (as far as I could tell) wise elders surveyed. This is an oversight.
Accepting Ourselves First
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. I think I can speak as an “expert” (and am happy to share my bona fides, if you wish), and offer this response to the challenge posed by the NY Times editors: We need to fix ourselves before we fix anything else.
Let me be specific. 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 spent countless hours exploring these very elements with people who experienced differing degrees of guilt, elation, and remorse in coming to terms with themselves. While I was able to offer different approaches to confront these dilemmas, the ultimate solution was not about fixing, but about accepting.
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 and instead of forging ahead and just creating new problems, 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 do nothing.
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 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.
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 that I return to over and over is titled, “What Are Old People For?” How do you answer that question? In these most extraordinary of times, what is your function? What are you contributing? How are you engaging with life? I suggest to you that you are incredibly valuable and that you are in great demand.
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 learned to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty that we can and will make it through this.
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.
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 insuring 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. Insuring that all members within it 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.
Earlier this year I attended a rally organized by youth in my community in response to the George Floyd murder. I was brought to tears as they shared their pain arising from feeling marginalized because of their age, made invisible, and silenced because of the color of their skin, their gendered lives, and their economic status. What struck me is that this pain is also experienced by many older adults. I was reminded of my own coming-of-age adventures during the 1970’s, protesting the war in Viet Nam, marching for civil rights, and demanding justice for all. My lesson here is that during the interim, the suffering did not diminish, but my ability to be compassionate with myself and others increased. And that is the most valuable advice I can offer.
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.