If Star Trek were real and Spock were alive today, he might expound upon his famous salutation (“Live long and prosper”) by stating the benefits of living a long life. He might declare that living a long life is not only good in and of itself, but also because living a long life means we’ve accumulated much knowledge and, hopefully, wisdom. But what to do with all this knowledge? Sure, one can use it to benefit oneself, but I suspect Spock would say it’s meant for so much more than just self-profit.
Generation after generation, a constant refrain heard in the secular world is that youths do not respect their elders. Of course, people show a lack of respect in a variety of ways, but perhaps what is most unfortunate is when people don’t value their elders’ knowledge and experience. During my childhood, I used to hear my uncle lament that senior citizens were often relegated to nursing homes where they were sometimes forgotten by family and friends. In short order, it seemed to him, these elderly people were cast aside as if their worth had run out.
Nestled within my uncle’s observation was the implicit message that growing older doesn’t mean having less value or worth. On the contrary, growing older should be celebrated! Perhaps singer Aretha Franklin said it best when she belted out R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Interestingly, in prison, respect is often accorded to older inmates (or, at least it’s accorded to the older inmates who are not trying to stab you in your sleep). In a therapy group I used to conduct, there was an inmate who was in his early 60s and had already been incarcerated for 25 years for a series of burglaries. Believe it or not, he’d spent the previous 15 years reforming himself and had become a very different person. Eventually, he started dedicating some of his time to guiding other inmates toward being better, healthier, and yes, more law-abiding, people. As a show of respect, he was often referred to as “uncle” by other inmates. When he spoke in the therapy group, the other inmates usually listened attentively because they recognized that his many years on this Earth and in prison had given him an important perspective from which they could benefit.
I think one of the most beautiful aspects to Judaism is the respect and honor it holds for our elders. In Judaism, we’re taught to honor our elders. We’re taught that their long lives are not just a sign that they’ve lived many years, but something much more meaningful. A long life carries with it a wealth of experience and understanding that benefits everyone. If it’s true we can learn something from anyone (from the most celebrated neurosurgeon to a high school janitor), it is doubly true that we can learn something of great value from our elders.
Judaism’s esteem for our elders is seen in many places, including the respect given to our learned sages who’ve lived throughout our history, as well as to our modern-day rabbis and rebbetzins. In fact, we recently celebrated Lag B’Omer, in which we joyously marked the end of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s many students. Lag B’Omer is also a celebration of the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was among the greatest of Rabbi Akiva’s students.
We see Judaism’s veneration of our elders in our cultural practices as well. For example, it is quite common for grown children to have their elderly parents live with them and their families when their parents are no longer able to live independently. This indicates not only a love for one’s parents, but also an acknowledgment that their parents have much of value to impart to them and the grandchildren.
Society is replete with references to a dismissive attitude toward all things “old.” For example, the saying “Out with the old, in with the new” comes to mind. How about some people’s near-obsession with topical and surgical treatments to appear young and youthful? There is nothing wrong with wanting to look younger (I wish I still had a full head of hair) and I’m sure most people don’t miss rotary phones. (Remember having to redial all over again if you misdialed a wrong number at the end?) However, let’s also celebrate all that’s wonderful about growing older, not only because growing older benefits oneself, but perhaps even more importantly, because our elders have so much that we can benefit from.
Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.
By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD