Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What 100-Year-Old BFFs Can Teach Us

Earlier this month The Steve Harvey Show featured a pair of 100-year-old women in a videotaped interview in which they responded to questions about today’s pop culture. For a couple of minutes the lovely ladies shared their charmingly quaint perspective on such contemporary trends as twerking and selfies, to the amusement of Harvey and his audience. But the most interesting aspect is not what their answers revealed about those sweet friends, but what the questions reveal about us.

Irene and Alice, as Harvey introduced them, have been lifelong BFFs – and when I say lifelong, I mean for 94 years, which means they have come closer to actually being Best Friends Forever than possibly anyone ever before. Imagine the history they have witnessed in their lives, the wise perspective they must have acquired from long experience, the tales and insights they could share with the audience.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a glimpse of any of that because the questions were shallow and a touch patronizing. The women were limited to commenting upon such trivia as: “What do you think about Justin Beiber?” “Are you dissatisfied with the new Apple iPhone operating system?” “What do you think of the name North West?” It was all in good fun but ended up making Alice and Irene look adorably, comically out-of-touch and old-fashioned – which is about the best treatment old people can expect in today’s pop culture.

How much more enlightening it would have been had the audience been treated to Alice and Irene’s commentary about the cultural shifts they have witnessed over a full century; about how morals and manners and leisure and learning have changed; about what has been lost and what has been gained. Not “What do you think about selfies?” but “How do you think our sense of self has changed?” Rather than merely amuse us, it might have opened some eyes and made us look at ourselves and our time in a different light.

History accelerates. In the classical era before Christ (or Before the Common Era, as it is known by modern scholars), generations of people could pass their entire lives without seeing any substantial change in the world around them or in the manner in which life was lived. The vast majority of people in that time never even wandered farther than a handful of miles from their birthplace in their lifetime. News from the distant outside world was rare, and probably more rumor than fact.

By contrast, my maternal grandmother, may she rest in peace, who was born in the year 1900, saw in her eight decades a shocking surge of technological acceleration, from the introduction of the Ford Model T to the Apollo 11 moon landing and beyond. Today, First World millennials have grown up constantly connected to a perpetual influx of news, information, and entertainment from every corner of the world.

One effect of this acceleration is to leave us in Present Shock, as Douglas Rushkoff puts it, fixated on the now and on the ephemera that the now largely comprises, like the name of Kim and Kanye’s daughter. The fact that we all know who North West is, and Alice and Irene don’t, reflects more poorly on us than on them. This is not to say that the ladies didn’t indulge in their share of gossip and trivia in their time; only that today we are inundated with it so relentlessly that it is possible to lose all larger, deeper perspective on the world and our place in it. It takes an almost superhuman effort now to disconnect, decelerate, and ground ourselves in ourselves. Alice and Irene never had to contend with this.

Old people tend to be invisible in our youth-obsessed culture. It’s easy to dismiss seniors, and indeed history itself, as irrelevant to the now. But time marches on, and I’m reminded of the old Roman epitaph, “Where you are, I have been; where I am, you will be.” One day we too will be old – invisible, irrelevant, ignored, unless society learns to value its elders. It’s sobering to picture ourselves at 100. How will we be viewed then? Will our wisdom be heeded, or will we have nothing to talk about but Justin Beiber and North West?

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/25/14)