I am reading a fascinating book called The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Thomas recounts her teenage years in the 1950’s spent with her parents in the Kalahari desert of Africa among the “San,” the Ju/Wasi bushmen people. It apparently reprises an earlier work by her, The Harmless People, written in 1959, and which I shall surely read soon. I have no credentials with which to critique Thomas’ observations and conclusions but I will say that I am enjoying her writing immensely and am riveted by the subject matter. And it makes me think, which is my number one criteria for a “good read.”
The premise is that these people lived as the Neolithic people did: purely as hunter/gatherers without permanent housing or agriculture. Thomas and her parents spent several years among them during the 1950’s, recording their lifestyle. Thomas has visited these people off and on since. Her report is that they no longer live in the “Old Way,” but have become more modernized. She postulates that there are no more people who now live in the Old Way.
I am about half-way through this page turner, and have reached her chapter on “Life Cycles.” In the Ju/Wasi culture, the elderly succumb, as do we all, to the physical weaknesses of age. As they age, naturally they become unable to hunt or even to gather the roots and nuts and berries which provided sustenance for the tribe. It would be easy to say that they are no longer productive in the very physical life the Ju Wasi live. Not so.
Far from being “kicked to the curb” or isolated, the elderly among the Ju/Wasi of the 1950’s were revered. They were seen as repositories of valuable information, the holders of memories which could benefit the tribe. They were nurtured and cared for, others taking their place in the gathering of food, providing the gathered nuts, roots and berries to these elders without begrudging it. They still participated in sharing the meat of the hunts even though they were no longer hunters. Thomas describes them as being at the “pinnacle of society,” and recounts that they were the focus of any discussion of an important tribal decision.
It proved true for the Ju/Wasi that the old folks held memories which benefited the tribe. When the elephant visited the Ju/Wasi waterhole—a rarity—the elderly among them could recall when that had occurred before and advise the tribe on what to expect from the elephants’ behavior and how the tribe might act so as to avoid dangerous encroachment on these animals and live peacefully side by side with them.
This chapter has made me consider the status of the elderly in our society today. We are blessed, in America, with long life as compared to most. What this means is that we have a large population of elderly and, as one who approaches this status, don’t think I’m not thinking about it!
Do our elderly, like those of the Ju/Wasi, hold keys to life’s conundrums? I think so, but I don’t think this is recognized in our society as it was by the Ju/Wasi.
It seems to me, as a lay observer (no scientist!), that our culture’s “knowledge” is traveling at lightning speed. My mother-in-law just yesterday said to me, “I could never have predicted or imagined that just about everyone would carry a telephone with them. It is amazing that we can be so connected all the time!” She has also celebrated the connection of the internet, creating her own blog for the pleasure of her far-flung children and for her own sheer pleasure of recalling her family’s history.
My mother, also an octogenarian, has ventured onto the internet, amazed at it, somewhat intimidated by it. She will call me or e mail me with a question about some problem she is having with her internet use and, I am sorry to say, often I must consult the next generation down to get t he answer for her or—in fact—to get my DVD player to do what I want!
Because of this speed of technological advancement, I believe that it appears that older folks don’t have so much to contribute anymore. The Ju/Wasi were still using the bows and arrows that their ancestors always had. They had little in the way of technological advancement to boast about over the lifestyles of their previous generations.
I have to say that the perception of ineptitude of the elderly, which may diminish their value by younger folks today, is way off mark in my opinion. My last few years have been rocked with turmoil, and my mother, who has been this road herself, has given me guidance above and beyond what I know for myself as a divorce attorney. Likewise, my mother-in-law, though herself having been widowed from a long and happy marriage, nevertheless has been able to give me advice from her years of just living among others.
I am blessed to have both these women near me. My mother-in-law lives next door to me; my mother has lived with me and we have discussed her doing so again. Having them near me has meant close emotional connections, and wise counsel in the matters of relationship, if not technology.
Could it be that we are losing a grip on the really important questions of society? Of how we should act toward one another, of how we should cherish our families’ memories not only as a matter of interest, but as a matter of importance in charting our future?
Could it be that our true societal “infrastructures” are not high-tech issues but are actually timeless questions, the solutions to which can be found only in our collective memories, the deposits of which are communicated generation-to-generation? Are we missing out on some of this information by failing to ask?
Could it be that there are weightier questions in life than how to use the $%&**%# I-Phone!?
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask about the ancient paths, ‘Which one is the good way?’ Take it, and you will find rest for your souls.