Darel Rex Finley in 888

The Old People Who Pop Into Existence

2008.09.05   prev     next

ONCE in my twenties I was a captive audience to a sermonizer who, to the best of my current recollection, lectured his audience that, “You should listen to your elders. Most young people today act as if old people just popped into existence, as if those old people were never young, as if their opinions aren’t relevant to young people’s lives. Old people have been there. They were young once. They have good advice for you young people, that you would do best to follow.”

Thinking about this long and hard has led me to a funny conclusion. Most old people do just pop into existence. Yes, they were young once. But the old person that exists today didn’t exist then. The young person they once were, now no longer exists. This old person today — even if sharp of mind — has a different position in society, and therefore a different set of motivations, than the young person.

The old person is in a position of not being able to pursue romance with young, beautiful people. Of not being able to take chances on long-term ventures. Of having to rely mostly on their past accomplishments for their present comforts and stature. And of having only their past experiences to offer to others (as wisdom), instead of being able to offer a wide-open future, full of possibilities.

You’ve probably heard the old saying that a good game of pool is a sign of a misspent youth. But what if you really like to play pool? When I think of all the money I spent (thousands?) playing coin-operated videogames in the early 1980s, it is very easy for me to think, “Oh, if only I had saved that money instead, in a high-interest savings account. By now it would have grown to a big chunk of money — probably enough for a down payment on a substantially nicer house than the one in which I currently have to reside.”

But to think like that, I would have to neglect to fully imagine what it would have been like to live my entire teens without getting to do what I was most passionate about at the time. To watch videogames blossom from Pong to such widely varied challenges as Robotron, Joust, Tempest, and Xevious — but hardly ever get to play them myself, only watch others do so. I would have been abjectly miserable during several of the most important years of my life. And even more miserable when the era of classic coin-op videogames faded into the sunset and I had to live the rest of my life knowing I completely missed out on it.

And in order to believe that I should have saved that money, I would have to neglect to notice that spending money on a nicer house is not saving it — so wouldn’t I just be building more regret for myself fifteen or twenty years down the road? When will I actually get to spend this money, and how old will I be then? Am I going to enjoy this life or not?

When old people admonish young people to save money, or to hold out for their soulmate, or to spend more time learning and earning, and less time having fun, what they really mean is, “I wish my past self had done all those things, so my present (old) self could have a better life right now.”

Wishing your past self had been a selfless, tireless spartan, so that your present self could have better things, is just as much a failure to see the big picture as thinking you can do anything you want today because your future self will be a tireless spartan in picking up the pieces of the wreck, and patiently enduring its consequences. Wanting your past self (and by extension, other young people today) to have been a tireless spartan, is to believe in an impossible, contradictory universe in which your present self is a different person than your past or future self, and can legitimately want and expect those other two selves to have no wants or expectations.

What would people of this mindset say to a guy who didn’t sacrifice the fun of his youth, and is now entering middle age with dramatically less money than he would otherwise have had? Would they say, “I see you are nobly enduring a less-than-wealthy middle age, so that your younger self could enjoy his youth as he rightly should. That’s probably the best way to live.” Hell, no. They would say, “Tsk, tsk. Should’ve saved while you were young! That’s what you get.”

Old people who believe in a contradictory, continuously changing perspective as they progress through the different phases of their lives, whose current attitude popped into existence when they entered old age, can easily admonish a young person to save for the long-term, because they don’t have a long-term future ahead of them. When they were young they couldn’t admonish others to sacrifice, because they weren’t sacrificing so much themselves. But now that they can’t save for the future because their time here is almost up, they can admonish away with abandon. Just as the person who prefers monogamy (or whose low attractiveness prevents him from easily finding sexual partners) usually insists that monogamy is a moral choice — so the old person who has no long-term future for which to save can freely lecture the young to save for their old age.

Such old people can openly admit that they didn’t save as much as they now wish they had, and so, “learn a lesson from my life; save now for your old age” — and never even notice the incredible hypocrisy of such a statement. The hypocrisy would be glaringly obvious if they phrased it a little differently: “I wanted to live it up while I was young and could really enjoy it, and I did, and it was great! But now I’m old. So don’t do what I did. Otherwise, you might get old too... or, uh... never mind.”

If we lived in a world where your body started old and feeble, and slowly turned into a young, vibrant, healthy body over the course of several decades, and when you died, you were in excellent health with smooth skin and optimal beauty and enthusiasm for life, then I would have to agree — spending the first two thirds of your life saving and sacrificing for the last third would be the only way to go. But we don’t live in a world that works that way. (And it’s probably good that we don’t, for a number of reasons.) We live in a world where your chance to enjoy youth, health, and beauty comes in the first third of your life, and to a lesser degree in the second third. And that’s when you have the chance to enjoy it.

Old people who really see the big picture, who didn’t pop into a different outlook upon growing old, who are fundamentally the same person with the same view of this life that they always were — such old people don’t lecture young people to have less fun. They remember the great times they had when they were young, and do what they can to help today’s young people have fun too.

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