“Rise up in the presence of the hoary head…”(a Biblical proverb)
During the pandemic, several of my male friends decided to grow beards, while others have let their beards grow without trimming. (Super Movember??) While I have not had a beard for over twenty years, the results remind me of what I now look like were I to decide to let my facial hair proliferate. Combine this grey facial frazzle with thinning gray hair, and this is what Solomon’s proverb refers to as the male version of “the hoary head”, as per the old King James Version Bible rendering.
Centuries ago, rising up when an old geezer (male or female) or two entered the room where the younger set sat or reclined was an expected sign of respect. There were cultural assumptions behind such a practice, which in our time would just seem weird and very much unnecessary.
First, there simply weren’t large numbers of elders around, given the much shorter life-expectancy prevailing up to the twentieth century. Someone who made it into their sixties or beyond must therefore be specially favoured by God or the gods. That alone was reason enough to respect them, if only to avoid incurring divine disfavour for failing to recognize that these people probably had God’s protection and maybe even a special connection to the Lord. Hence, you would do well not to slight God by treating them with disdain or lack of courtesy.
Second, the elders who had survived were usually the community’s rulers and advisors and had earned their place and the respect of the younger, less life-experienced people aspiring to the prestige of recognized leadership. In those days, the world had a lot more constancy about it. Contrast this with our usual present-day practice of relegating our elderly to the sidelines because, supposedly, they can no longer keep up with all the new ideas and progressive advances in technical and social development. Since these are almost always supposed to be improvements over the “old-fashioned” methods and traditions of even one or two generations ago, where the seniors are assumed to be stalled, why would we want the old-timers in charge?
Thirdly, centuries ago, parents and grandparents were simply owed respect and esteem because they were your parents and grandparents and had raised you and cared for you. If they had done it moderately well, your respect for and honour of them was just their due.
We all know how much this whole cultural paradigm has shifted. “Seniors”(what a wretched word instead of elders!) get out of the way! Yet we are seeing two seniors face off for the Presidency of the USA. “Naturally”, in the 21st Century psyche, numerous questions abound as to their fitness to take on that most powerful of all political gigs in the world, even though one of the contestants has been in the job for four years. However one may assess his performance, on cannot say that he has not been as politically cunning and wily as many an aspiring younger fellow. But still, the assumption is that the two contestants can’t or won’t be able to keep up – in just about any aspect one cares to mention. Are Mr. Trump’s peregrinations the result of senile instability? (Hardly!) The old guys will need younger, stronger, smarter, more adaptable people to guide them, rather than their guiding their team of supporters – constitutional niceties aside.
Absent from our current society’s way of considering such profundities is the true end, the real context, in which all this plays out. But, as our old friend Qohelet might have said, “This too is not a new thing under the sun.” To the ultra-rich and powerful down through the ages of recorded history, the greater context has almost always been, in application, invisible or just plain ignored. Bloody inconvenient too, admitting there is Someone or something greater than you to give account to. Alternatively, official homage to the Greater Power has been observed as a means to manipulate the rest of the human herd and keep or make them subservient.
No one ever born has ultimately been able to avoid facing the “greater context”, however much they may deny it or how hard they may work at staving it off. A Buddhist meditation preparation (paraphrased) puts it thus:
“I am of a nature to die; I am of a nature to become sick; I am of a nature to become weak; I am of a nature to be forgotten soon after I depart this world.”
Yet most of us in this society of “First-World” dominants, perhaps more than in any other age, seem to live as if none of this is true – until suddenly we are forced to face our own mortality, transiency, and ultimate insignificance. As the whole world has been forced to do in this pandemic pause to ponder.
The Queen of England (and Canada, and Australia, and New Zealand, who is also the reputed most famous and wealthy woman in the world) and Jeff Bezos (the reputed wealthiest person in the world) must eat, drink, and use the toilet same as the rest of us. Their wealth and power and influence will not exclude them from the common fate of all referred to by Buddha.
Perhaps in centuries past the elderly really did merit the roll of “elders” – those qualified to lead by wisdom and life experience. Even now, it may well be true that the elderly who have not become demented and not given in to despair and cynicism still have a great deal of practical wisdom to share about how to live a “good life” (a long and complex subject in itself), regardless of their supposed lack of technical prowess and inability to or simple disinterest in keeping up with all the foolish trends and spurious causes of dissent and outrage that so plague our increasingly uncivil society.
The art of dying well is never out of date, but the wisdom to prepare for it is more and more rare. Instead, we have created a culture which obsesses about prolonging the illusions of youth. Our culture denies that those raging hormones need to be given proper channeling or they will curse both the individuals who abuse them and their victims. The strong and aggressive may use their raging energy (which is largely sexual repression and misappropriation) to subdue and destroy others. A subtler method of destroying the repressor and oppressor of one’s urges, or anyone who dares challenge the actions, causes, and words of the new class of revolutionaries, is to engage in outrage at every voice which suggests your preferred cause may be hollow. We now have whole masses substituting rage for the love they are seeking in all the wrong places.
Life’s journey towards death may be long or short. Rage and constant outrage tend to make it short and brutal, bereft of almost all the most rewarding experiences and elements we have been offered by our Creator if we seek to do it His/Her way. It may be rich and full at almost any length if it is cherished and wielded well. For those who unrepentantly destroy others’ lives by using them for their own pleasure, benefit, and selfish purposes, there is a special place in hell. In my own humble experience of watching historical examples and those of some people I have known in the course of seven decades, few succeed in escaping the trap seeking revenge or even some notion “justice” via anger and violence which they make for themselves. “You reap what you sow.” “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Karma is a real thing, whatever religion, philosophy, or ideology you hold to.
As to the COVID whisker proliferations? They may just be a whim. Or the onset of laziness about personal appearance. Or an admission of defeat in fending off old-age and its inevitable conclusion. Or perhaps an attempt to recapture in even a teensy way some of the magic of that mythological stage of virile youth. Or, finally, just a way of coping with the lack of new scenery to gaze at from the confines of COVID isolation. Or, most improbable, maybe someone sweet and irresistible asked you to grow the thing back.
The one thing we can all do as we continue along this globally shared journey in 2020 into 2021 is to remember what Buddha said. And here is another piece of ancient wisdom along those lines from The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews: “It is given to humans to die once, and then comes judgment.” We have one go, one kick at the can, one journey to make. COVID reminds us that our age (personal and societal) doesn’t guarantee how short or long our personal trip will be. The one guarantee is that we will all arrive at the same destination.
In meeting our Creator at least that one time, the most important question will be what account we will give for how we made our journey, which was His/Her great gift to us, given out of sheer love and under no obligation on His/Her part. Rationalizations and justifications will be irrelevant, for, as Hebrews also said (my rough paraphrase) “All is visible and open to view to the Lord. . . . It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. Especially if you face Him/Her alone and have to stand on your own merits.
Personally, I’m trusting my Advocate to be there with me, as He has pledged He would be two thousand years ago to anyone who asks. In my own case it was not quite so long ago that we had that talk. I’m sure He would be willing to stand with you too, but you’ll have to ask Him ahead of time. Don’t wait too long!