Friday, April 6, 2012

Thoughts on growing younger

I got a letter today, from a friend who is my age. Having watched this friend go through some personal gyrations recently, it became clear to me that they were deep in a period of self-realization. Now, I am still learning about myself, ways that I can improve what I do, techniques to make me more successful in life. What amazes me, a little, is the depth of the self-searching and realization that we are going through. But we are not the only ones. I see it in other people of my generation. I see it in our age - from Hemingway to Kerouac.

Forty years ago, when we were young, this was no surprise. But now? It seems odd. Are we peculiar? Or, are we just a sign of our times?

I look at the example of my grandparents, and I can not find this depth of self-analysis, self-realization in my memories of them. Grandpa W- my mother's side - by this age had married his last wife (of about 4, if I recall) and he seemed happy enough with it. Grandpa B: there was a little more that I witnessed there. He was a bit rocked when Dad died (Dad was 60). His comment was you didn't expect to outlive your kids. Somehow, I think that experience opened him up a little. He changed a little when he had his strokes, and lost the ability to speak, not once but several times. He had to relearn how to speak each time. I remember after the first round or so, he made a comment about the words were there - but he could not grasp them. Grandma B was always generous, to the end, and I do not remember her ever changing much from that. Grandma W was always tough and thorny. I do not recall her ever changing that much either, although I understand from others in the family that she did grow a shade more tolerant in her later years.

But I do not recall any of them going through basic self-realization at this late age. I do not recall seeing them in deep thought about who they were, or their place in the world, or the place of mankind in the universe. There were certainly reminiscences. Grandpa B remarked more than once on how he was the last one left, both of his immediate family, and his boyhood friends.

Maybe it is like the knights of medieval days, spending most of their life pillaging, cheating, fighting, bullying, and otherwise trying their best to be financially successful in medieval knight terms, all of them pretty reprehensible by our standards. Until late in their life, at a time when they felt the hand of Death on their shoulder, then they seemed to get religion. That was when the chapel got built, the cathedral funded. Then they started asking for forgiveness. But was that self-discovery, or just the fashion of the times? When you had a God you could spurn during your life when he was inconvenient, but call upon when you needed that little extra oomph in a battle? Then finally to ask and be given forgiveness when you were essentially past the days when you had the energy or need to commit atrocious acts? Nah, I don't think that was so much "self-discovery".

Later in time, during the days after the Renaissance, when the great thinkers were abroad (Hobbes, Pope, Locke,  Newton, Descartes, etc.) we see people thinking, learning, and examining life later in years. I think I can see, in history, this current of intellectual accumulation and activity throughout one's lifespan, continue into and through the end of the 19th century, fading as the 20th century bloomed.

It faded, I think, with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution produced men and women of action, more than thought. I don't have numbers, but I would bet the Industrial Revolution, in spite of its promise, initially led to a weakening of the middle classes. And, thus, less opportunity for cogitation as casual entertainment, and more reason that people inclined to action became a dominant trend.

The financial crises at the end of the 19th century, and the waves of emigration, followed by the 1st World War, the Great Depression, the Weimar Republic, and the death of the Chinese imperial world, these were trends that led to people who did what they did young - and they kept going at it. The 2nd World War - or the Great Patriotic War if you are Russian, seems to have put a cap on that, with a feather in it. Then, we had a period of greatly improved economies around the world, a strengthening of the middle classes, around the world, and this was topped by the computer age. Today, the computer barons are a throw-back to the industrial barons of the late 19 century - but that is a function of a new technology in an economic system that is not expecting the changes wrought. While history has not yet had its final say, it does seem that our computers are a leveling influence in the long run. Like the rest of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps eventually it will empower the middle classes. I say it has not YET done so - because look at the growing disparity of income in the 1st world countries (the industrialized world). There is a growing body of service workers - low pay, and a growing sector of highly paid specialists. You can't have both sectors growing faster than the population, unless you are losing members of the middle classes. Maybe it is just a temporary labor displacement, the kind of thing we learn about in economics in college. But keep in mind, my guess is that "temporary" here would be a couple of generations, or at least 30 years. I think it  took that long, or longer, for labor unions (and government regulation and intervention) to catch up to labor management to protect and defend the middle classes.

I can place the character of my most accomplished grandparents (Grandpa B and Grandma W) squarely in the influence of the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. They were definitely in the mold of the day. Grandpa B did his self-discovery young, and went on to become a pioneer in his field. Grandma W was a trailblazer of her time - a young divorcee and single mother goes to college, gets a professional degree, and goes on to success. They found whatever it was in themselves that they needed at a young age.

By the way, I only use my grandparents as a reference point. They represent the most distant point in time that I personally have a remembered and significant connection to. While I remember one of my great-aunts, the rest of that generation passed away before I had any significant memories of them. And that great-aunt passed away when I was quite young - so I have little idea of who or what she was as a person.

So, what conclusion can I draw from this? Maybe we just had a higher concentration of lost souls than is common. I think we were part of a rare time, or an eddy in the current of history,  Maybe I have already explained why it could be - we are part of a period in history when growing up was relatively comfortable. We had more options, more alternatives, and less need to remain with our original choices than was true in other periods of history. Top that off with a wide-spread attitude that intellectual activity had some benefit, and you have the prerequisites for a thinking population, yes? Top that off with a better access to whatever knowledge earlier generations left behind. Or, just better access to the knowledge our own generation has gathered and left behind.

Worker bees go through a fixed pattern of duties as they get older. In a pattern more rigid than our school systems current performance-based testing, a worker bee will move from one set of duties to another as they grow older. When a beehive loses bees, the worker bees go into a state of flux. The worker bee can regress in age - and becomes younger (true!) - when the hive needs the resource. In the beehive - there is a mutual imperative that causes the bees to grow younger in body as they still grow older in time.

Today, the world is in flux - like the beehive after it has lost bees. We are in a day and time where we can grow and think at a later date in our personal timeline than is historically normal.  In my grandparents' day, that would only have come as late regrets of things that might have been. For us, unlike the bees, the imperative is self-powered, our own choice of action while dealing with the world. We look around us, and we can find ways to deal with the world in better ways. We also know that we can still change what we do in the world, and that we can change how the world responds to us. And for us, because we are in a time of flux, and a time of knowledge, it is more likely that our thoughts and explorations at a later time in our lives can impact either our own lives, or the lives of those around us.

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