September 15, 2013
Respect By Tradition
I’m pretty sure we have all heard “Respect your elders!” from everyone older than you (and some of you have probably said it to us younger folk!), and it usually inspires a disgruntled feeling rather than respect. For the past year, I have lived with my 79-year old grandmother as a way to help her out and to have a rent-free place while going to college (but I supply my own food, since we have way different tastes). Born and raised during the Great Depression, she certainly is scrupulous, but also has a thing for quality. One of those is exactly what that phrase means.
My grandmother graduated from a girl’s finishing school, and likes to critique everything about me: my posture, manners, how I set the table, etc. There is an endless list of “proper” ways to do things that I never really learned growing up. Some are useful, like business etiquette and standing so you look taller and more confident, to less needful things like which way the knife points at the table and not going out in public in sweatpants. (With a 7 A.M. class, nobody really cares if I look like I rolled out of bed and threw on a clean T-Shirt.) She never tells me to “respect your elders!” or ask me to say “ma’am” (although I tend to do that automatically anyway, being born and raised in Texas and all.), yet I have this almost innate tendency to work harder and act better than I would in front of anyone else. And it isn’t because she’s almost 80 years old, it’s because she has nearly 80 years of experience.
Back in the day (another lovely idiom!), it wasn’t as common to see older people, and the ones that did manage to live that long were either wealthy or very smart. To meet someone who was 50 or 60 was a seen as an amazing accomplishment, and a great chance to find out what they did to live so long. So, the respect that the elders received was because of their achievements, and not solely based on their age; that age took work, intelligence, and a good head about opportunity. Yeah, some people were cranky and cynical, but there is still that motivation and purpose that got them that far in one piece, and even if the community did not respect other aspects of the person, their success in avoiding death warranted a little of it.
Fast-forwarding to today, there are so many medical advances and health improvement, that the definition of “old” is getting further and further down the number line. As a result, there are many more elders in the world that there used to be, and it looks like the meaning behind “Respect your Elders” has become lost on most of the next generations. I’m pretty sure anyone under the age of 30 is of the general opinion that they have no reason to respect elders because of their age, nor listen or obey them. And I think that is a healthy reason, but not one to exclude the courtesy of giving respect. I don’t agree with my Nan about how I should dress, the political agenda of the government, or how to boil an egg. But I do listen to her because she is a human, and an experienced, crafty one at that. She has good insight past all her preferences and bias, and that is something that people in the past focused on more. ).
So, just because someone is older, doesn’t mean that they command obedience of the younger generations, but rather deserve a little respect simply because they are living and probably have more wisdom than most. When I see my grandmother, I do not focus on her nitpicking, old-fashioned ways as something to scoff and roll my eyes at. Instead, I see the struggles and success that she has had in life, and her raw will to live, and that is something to admire in anyone who grows old.
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