A Modern Life web extra:
Back in the 50’s social critics complained that the new fangled box known as television would singlehandedly destroy the art of conversation, and that society would be turned into lemmings, mindlessly doing whatever the TV told them to do.
I once heard my mom and dad discussing this subject with considerable earnestness.
I thought they were loony.
I was a kid. The first-ever TV arrived in Huston home when I was five. I grew up on Huckleberry Hound and the Mickey Mouse Club. Having known nothing else, I bonded with the new world of mass communication as if it had always been there. For me, and for the kids like me, it always had.
Throughout my adolescence adults loudly complained about Elvis the Pelvis, and long-hair groups like the Beatles. When kids my age protested the Viet Nam war and embraced something called ‘free love’ they predicted the collapse of America.
Now I’m the old guy, and I look at anyone under thirty with wonder, bafflement, and fear. How are they doomed? Let me count the ways: poor communication skills, endless distraction that impedes deep thinking, ubiquitous pornography that warps personal growth in ways we don’t fully understand yet, the withering distrust between the sexes, and the relentless push to develop yourself as a ‘brand’ instead of a human being under the crushing scrutiny of social media that enshrines mindless superficiality over depth of character. I could go on.
But what do I know? I’m just an old guy.
And here’s where I start to worry. Just as my parents were sure that my generation was about to destroy the country, I look at today’s kids with the same level of discouragement. And I’m wrong to do it. They’ve got their challenges just like we did. We survived, and they will too. And the world will change in the process, and oldsters will complain, and the kids will just get on with it and do the best they can with the mess they inherited (just like we did) because (just like us) they have no choice.
So where does that leave me, and people like me? Are we older folks all worthless gas bags? In society we sometimes talk about the wisdom of the old, but just as frequently dismiss what they say as irrelevant drivel.
So which is it? Am I generating a little wisdom here? Or just intellectual flatulence?
I think, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, that while everything in the world is constantly changing, the truth is that nothing in the world really changes.
Tech changes. Modes of communication changes. Leaders, laws, systems and fashions change. The ways we kill each other change. People, however, don’t change.
People need love and want to feel connected. We are capable of great goodness and mindless cruelty, sometimes on the same day. We judge others by their actions, yet judge ourselves by our intentions. We want to be better than we are, except when it’s inconvenient. We are afraid of people who aren’t like us.
Everything changes. Nothing changes. The Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolkien, McMurtry, Disney, Stan Lee—they’re all telling different stories about the same people. Doomed love, prodigal kids, betrayal, overcoming the odds, the strength found in struggle. The discovery that despite our differences we’re really not very different.
It’s all been done before.
So here’s how you can tell when an old guy is worth listening to. If he starts to complain about things— like smart phones or Wii’s, or cars with push button hatchback doors, tune him out. People used to complain about wiring homes for electricity.
But if he starts to complain about how modern life is getting in the way of our ability to act like human beings, then listen up—because human nature isn’t changing anytime soon. The best we can do is plug a cork in some part of it, but that just builds up pressure. We’ll think we’ve accomplished something permanent, but sooner or later the cork is going to blow. And the results might not be pretty.
He’ll point all this out, and when the cork blows he might even be a little smug with his I-told-you-so. As you’re picking up the pieces, try to cut his smugness some slack. He wasn’t always that smart. Once he was even as dumb as you are now.