May 23, 2013
Fred Branfman on ‘The Making of an Elder Culture’
Posted on Nov 27, 2009
Was it bitter then with our backs against the wall?
—from “Living Legend,” by Kris Kristofferson
Could the demographics and economics of a giant aging baby-boom generation unleash long-repressed pools of youthful idealism to produce a new “elder culture”? Could boomer seniors finally realize the failed hopes of their youth for a socially just, environmentally sane, nonmaterialistic and peaceful America? And, whatever happens to society as a whole, can old age, health scares and greater proximity to death produce psychological and spiritual breakthroughs for individual boomers that vastly enrich and deepen their lives?
As I read Theodore Roszak’s lyrical passages in “The Making of an Elder Culture” about the possibilities of personal transformation through aging I remembered Hans, a fellow with AIDS with whom I used to meditate. The light, joy and spiritual energy he emanated made believable his claim that his illness had brought his life to new levels of joy. I was spellbound one morning, for example, as he described consciously taking several hours rather than his usual 20 minutes to walk to the Berkeley Co-op. He spoke vividly of the people, animals, homes, shops, trees, flowers, plant life; the shape and texture of the clouds; the thinking behind the use of space; the green areas; the way traffic was directed; how people treated their pets. I left our talk joyful myself, as often occurs for those interacting with someone who has had a taste of enlightenment.
Cases like Hans’ are far more common than we think, and it is in such possibilities for personal change that Roszak grounds his hopes for societal transformation. “If we confront the experience with full awareness, aging can prepare us to learn what so many great sages have tried to teach: to be mindful of our mortality, to honor the needs of the soul, to practice compassion. Conscious aging opens us to these truths; it is a mighty undoer of the ego,” he writes.
The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America’s Most Audacious Generation
By Theodore Roszak
New Society Publishers, 320 pages
He teaches Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” he explains, because it illustrates how proximity to death can lead to a greater appreciation of life: “I have valued Tolstoy’s story over the years because it uses death so powerfully to teach the magnificence of life.” This theme is more fully developed in a new book, “Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness,” by Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, perhaps the clearest explanation to date of how unconscious death anxiety limits lives that can be vastly expanded if we dare to consciously feel our feelings about our mortality.
Although he believes aging can transform individuals, however, Roszak aims far higher, urging boomers to rekindle their youthful idealism and remake America: “I seek ... above all, to create a new paradigm for aging that will enable the baby boom generation to live out its history with moral courage and high expectations.”
Roszak hopes that aging will see boomers combine a new “elder” consciousness with a real-life intergenerational political movement that will fight for entitlements not only for themselves but everyone in need. His new paradigm also includes “environmental enlightenment,” “voluntary simplicity,” “gentleness and ethical responsibility” and seniors engaging in “volunteer services, higher education, and political activism” on behalf of the young. He hopes that baby boomers, who in their youth created the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, sexual liberation and feminist movements, will as seniors once more mount the barricades and create the gentler, kinder American society of which they once dreamed.
And he is not coy about saying how this new paradigm will be financed. “And where will that money [for entitlements] be found except in the pockets of corporate America, where it has been stashed away in ever-increasing amounts since the days of the Reagan Presidency? When the crunch comes ... we will hear the old populist battle cry: `Soak the rich!’ ” He would also, needless to say, dramatically reduce military spending.
For many, of course, Roszak’s dream is a nightmare. The “change” most Americans want from President Barack Obama is for him to restore their previous way of life, not transform it into an existence under a European-style welfare state. A Wall Street Journal editor recently opined that “old Europe lives in a world of unpayable public pension obligations, weak job creation for its younger workers, below-replacement birth rates ... high taxes to pay for the public high-life, and history’s most crucial proof of decay—the inability to finance one’s armies.”
Others, while sharing Roszak’s hopes, will see them as being as naive as his overblown depiction of baby boomers in his best-selling 1969 book, “The Making of the Counter Culture.” Roszak himself writes now that “perhaps I would have [had] less hope of rapid social change if I could have foreseen how many members of the younger generation would eventually wind up as cultural conservatives or evangelical Christians [or] settle for lucrative business careers.” Also, of course, many formerly liberal boomers have grown politically disengaged over time.
And many “Y Generation” members will not seek to be led by boomer “elders” whom they see as at best well-intentioned but overweight, self-absorbed, impractical bloviators who smoked too much weed in their youth and fail to produce real-world results today. Many see both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as archetypes of self-indulgent boomerism, and welcomed Obama not only for his personal qualities but as a symbol of generational change.
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