Reflections on Old Age and Youth

Every summer on Orcas Island in Washington State there is a gathering of Christian thoughtful-creatives called the Kindlings Fest. Its theme for this summer is one I particularly like: Crabbed age and youth cannot live together? Dealing with the older generation is something I face constantly, threading the difficult balance between respecting their life experience and living out what I see to be true. Both young and old hold unrecognized presuppositions that sometimes diverge so much as to make agreement look impossible.

Nigel Goodwin, one of the leaders of the Kindlings Fest and a man of crabbed age, is fond of saying that we are human becomings, not human beings. We are never in our final state during this life. We are always learning, changing, and growing. Humans are not meant to be static characters in a story but dynamic ones. For a Christian this means that Christ will continue conforming us to his image until our dying breath (and beyond). This doesn’t mean that we lack certainty about the truth, as if we continually need to discard what we believe in. Rather, as Jerry Root, one of the speakers at the Kindling Fest, often says, “we don’t have the final word, but we do have a sure word.”

What I find in the older generation is that many have stopped becoming. Either through a sense of arrival or despair they enter into an unhealthy contentment. Yet when that happens a kind of death takes place. When a body stops growing it begins its descent onto death. The life of an older person who stops becoming will shrink. Such an attitude makes it hard for them to engage with the younger generation.

Old Man and Young Violinist
Aleksandr Kharon

The younger generation is by default in a state of becoming. Someone from the older generation who has stopped becoming will be unable to enter into the world of the younger. Instead they can only say, “You’ll think differently when you’re older.” The younger person who is in a constant state of trying and rejecting new ways of being wants to evaluate and critique the older person’s point of view. This is uncomfortable as the older person has quite settled in a spot. Young people are constantly remodeling, adding to, and taking away from their understanding of the world in an attempt to build a firm house to inhabit. What they consider to be a structural weakness might be a main pillar in the home of the old.

Becoming is the default state of human beings until they reach a point of ossifying. It takes intentional effort to continue growing, one which the youth often fail to continue because they never knew they had it. Of course young people do exhibit some of the dangers of being in a state of becoming. The point of becoming is to become like something, a journey towards a destination. Some young people, especially those who fear becoming stagnant like their parents, can fall into the trap of always becoming, but never into something. They fear commitment, which is exactly what is needed to grow. No all who wander are lost, but some who do are and it can be hard to discern which is which.

An example from history of age that attracted youth was Socrates. He continually examined the world around him, trying to understand it better. Plato’s Republic is the record of a discussion between Socrates and others. Through the use of powerful questions and dialogue Socrates made youth a part of his discovery and exploration of truth. While on the surface youth appears to rebel against all the wisdom of old age, deep down they want to connect with it. Youth wants older persons who will allow them to enter into their own journey of becoming, not lecture them. Socrates’ never ending quest to deepen his understanding and particular method of doing so drew youth to him. Youth is also allowed to enter in when people of age tell their own uninterpreted stories of becoming. Ironically, old age was annoyed by Socrates and thought him a meddler. Perhaps then it is not youth and old age that can’t live together peacefully but being and becoming.

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