Saturday Morning Post

A couple of thoughts for this text have been languishing in the drafts section for about a month. This purgatory area is a bit like the departure lounge at Tripoli airport right now―you may be lucky enough to leave it for a better place at some point in the future. Mind you, there it depends more on a good passport than on good behavior.

My reflections were on the subject of age, which is something I think about quite regularly. If you exclude physiology, time is really the only thing we all have in common. It’s an amazingly difficult thing to understand, and by and large we don’t try. Any concept that has no beginning and end is alien to us, much like the concept of infinity. I imagine for the majority of people the lowest number is zero, rather than the non-existent number minus infinity

Kids reflect this disconnect shortly after learning about infinity by stating categorically that their big brother is infinity times infinity stronger than yours. People who learn about the Big Bang are puzzled about what was around before. I certainly am. And religions contain phrases such as “from now until the end of time”, and “forever and ever”. Time really is you, and above all what you make of it. A Brazilian sign in the restroom of one of my favorite restaurants sums it up:

The length of a minute depends on which side of this door you’re on.

 Old age of course mirrors many of the characteristics of very early childhood: difficulties in autonomy, propensity for soft foods, conversations increasingly unrelated to the mainstream world, little bladder control. And unfortunately, more vulnerability to abuse. It’s a sad human trait that the weak are systematically abused. It reinforces our animal nature, since that cruelty is universal in the animal kingdom. Weakness doesn’t need to be physical, it can be financial. We call it the law of the jungle, but actually we are the jungle.

I normally use two diagnostics for youth. You’re young if you don’t wear a watch, and if you carry no pills (birth control doesn’t count but only for women). On the other side of that fence you understand you’re older when you have more than one thing wrong with you at any one time, and when whatever’s wrong with you takes weeks instead of days to sort out. Then it becomes months.

At some magical cutoff point people in the west become old, based on a numerical limit. Although the theory behind this was initially not based on marginal utility, but rather on the idea that older people should enjoy retirement, and the job market would be a fluid enterprise welcoming youths avid for a lifetime of productive work, it doesn’t work that way now. In fact, given the demographic shift, Western Europe is at a loss as to how to pay the pensions of people who have worked all their lives. How has that been solved? Easy, extend the retirement age. Umm… right. Doesn’t that just increase youth unemployment and benefit costs? Politicans are great at saying those kinds of things politely.

To be successful in life it is not sufficient to be stupid, you must also have good manners (Voltaire)   

On occasion I tell students that I encourage them to think independently so they’re able to get a job in this killer market. Oh, and also so they can pay my pension. But I’m just kidding, I’m not working to a limit set by society. I’m working until I damn well please, in other words, until time, God, or whoever sets the real rules, allows me to. Time rules which translate into health rules and market rules. When you read a book (or a blog, or a newspaper) you don’t care about the author―who they are, how old or young, what they do!

I can broaden this out a little because The India Road blog now gets well over six hundred hits every month. I want to pay my respects and say thank-you. In August 2010 I put up a chart when these pages reached the two hundred mark. This is where we are now:

The India Road blog - views since October 2008.

    Today is the 5th of March. Eighty people have already been on this month. So a book is a weapon that can be used against a fundamentalist society that defines the age at which you are no longer useful. A blog is too. There’s a book that has swept France over the last few days, called Indignez-vous (show your anger, in my translation) and is thirteen pages long. Costs less than five bucks. Could be a blog. Publishers are lining up in Europe to translate and sell it. The author is ninety-three.

Predictably, you can find it on the web for free―I would do that first. Five bucks can buy you a very decent bottle of tinto in Portugal. Remember that wine helps you age gracefully. I saw a guy in his seventies the other day sporting a t-shirt that said: “Wine improves with age. The older I am, the better I like it.” 

The Chinese have a totally different view of age, much more equated with wisdom. Upward-looking young people know well the proverb:

Man who shine too brightly cast a long shadow

Western culture has done the opposite, and removed older people from the circle of decision. This has cost society dearly in recent years. If I have a twenty-five year old bank manager who has never suffered, how can I trust them with my money?

Chinese society is essentially a gerontocracy, but that acts to empower young people, as long as the game is played by the rules. During the Boxer Uprising at the turn of the nineteenth century, many Christian missionaries were killed in China. The rebellion started in Shandong Province, up in the northeast, and it is known in Chinese as the “Righteous Harmony Society Movement”.

Contrary to western perception, the Middle Kingdom was not especially concerned with the concept of a new religion―after all, there had been new waves since the days of Genghis Khan.

The real problem was that the guy in charge was only thirty-three.


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