Write It Out: Instruction Video
“When I’ve passed through different troubled parts of the world and sought local advice — on Indian reservations in the United States, at Banda Aceh in northern Sumatra after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, in Western Australia during the heady days of mining ceaselessly for iron ore (financed by the Chinese) — I’ve seen the same pattern of coping with disaster. Deferential local cooperation. This suggests to me that for many people in difficult circumstances, the notion of needing help from a centralized authority, especially one living at a remove from the problem, and the notion of fully protecting certain types of economic progress are not much on people’s minds. What I see consistently in these situations is the emergence of individuals who embody that culture’s sense of competence into positions of authority. They are its wellspring of calmness. They do not disappear with defeat or after setbacks. They do not require reassurance in their commitments to such abstractions as justice and reverence. In traditional villages they’re called the elders, the people who carry the knowledge of what works, who have the ability to organize chaos into meaning, and who can point recovery in a good direction. Some anthropologists believe that the presence of elders is as important as any technological advancement or material advantage in ensuring that human life continues.
I’ve not traveled enough, read enough, spoken to enough people to know, but this observation feels almost eerily correct to me. At the heart of the generalized complaint in every advanced or overdeveloped country about the tenor of modern life is the idea that those in political and economic control are self-serving and insincere in their promise to be just and respectful. I sat down once at my desk and wrote out the qualities I observed in elders I’d met in different cultures, nearly all of them unknown to one another. Elders take life more seriously. Their feelings toward all life around them are more tender, their capacity for empathy greater. They’re more accessible than other adults, able to engage in a conversation with a child that does not patronize or infantilize the child, but instead confirms the child in his or her sense of wonder. Finally, the elder is willing to disappear into the fabric of ordinary life. Elders are looking neither for an audience nor for confirmation. They know who they are, and the people around them know who they are. They do not need to tell you who they are.
To this list I would add one more thing. Elders are more often listeners than speakers. And when they speak, they can talk for a long while without using the word I.
Living in one of the most highly advanced of human cultures, I often wonder, What have modern cultures done with these people? In our search for heroes to admire, did we just run them over? Were we suspicious about the humility, the absence of self-promotion, the lack of impressive material wealth and other signs of conventional success? Or were we afraid they would tell us a story we didn’t want to hear? That they would suggest things we didn’t want to do?”
It was difficult to pick just one quote from this book. I am sure that I will keep returning to this book – there is just so much wealth in it. It came recommended to me a couple of years ago, and I finally had an opportunity to read it after receiving it as a gift from my sister and sister-in-law. Honestly, I’m still reading it now. It’s the kind of book where you move from one “aha!” moment to another, and I’m having to put it down and just think about things quite often. Good food for thought, here. I’m sure I’ll share more quotes from this book — the one I’ve chosen today really resonated with where we seem to be at right now. And to whom we should be reaching for guidance.
Thoughts? Feel free to share them here.