Rubin M. Hanan, 32
Birmingham, Alabama

Given the benefits of age—greater understanding, a better grasp of essentials, a clearer outlook on life and the world—elder citizens must exercise the leadership which is their right and obligation.

Modern American culture is characterized by a great preoccupation with aging and its concomitant problems. In trying to solve these problems, we Americans focus our attention largely on the physical changes that accompany the aging process. Consequently, our main avenue of approach consists of attempts to eliminate, alleviate, and postpone the symptoms of physiological deterioration.

We tend to overemphasize the desirability of youth and youthful traits; aging is invested with a horror from which we feel we must escape at all costs. In our preoccupation with physiological deterioration, we tend to overlook one important aspect of aging, the fact that advancing age generally means greater understanding, a better grasp of essentials, a clearer outlook on life and the world.

Since the only alternative to becoming old is to die young, the whole emphasis on youth is futile, and man feels himself doomed to the fate of growing old which he cannot avoid in spite of all his frantic efforts. Thus, there is a deep tragedy beneath all our institutionalized insistence on youth and fear of age. The culture forces us to value that of which we have less and less every day, and to abhor that which inevitably envelops us more and more.

Youth is consequently placed by modern American culture on so high a pedestal as to amount to idolization. Indeed, thoughtful students of the contemporary American scene describe our society as “child dominated.” Extreme permissiveness on the part of the parents often makes the child or teenager the dominant personality in the family, one whose wishes and whims must be fulfilled and whose behavioral excesses must be silently suffered.

Fear of old age is so strong that the very term “old” is carefully avoided. People in their forties are still called “young men” and “young women.” In their fifties they are referred to as “middle age.” In their sixties they are called “mature.” In their seventies they are still not “old” but merely “aging.” These semantic euphemisms help us close our eyes to old age; we attempt to deny or ignore its encroachment and to live our lives as if aging did not exist.

The ancient Hebrews, some of whose thoughts and feelings are preserved in the Bible, were also preoccupied with the problems of aging. They, too, recognized that old age is a life period in which physical strength declines. The classical expression of this feeling is found in the Book of Psalms in the outcry to God: Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth (Psalms 71:9).

But the Bible’s general attitude to old age was diametrically opposed to the one prevalent in our society today. Attention is focused on the psychological and mental traits which become dominant in old age, and consequently the evaluation of age and the aging process was positive, cheerful, optimistic. In fact, the occasional comparisons made by Biblical authors between youth and old age invariably stress the advantages of the latter over the former.

Childhood was regarded as a period of ignorance and folly, a time when all the faculties of the mind are “void of understanding” (Proverbs 7:7). “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15). The older a person gets, the more understanding and wisdom he acquires; and the more honor and, indeed, veneration is due him or her.

In biblical times, old age with its honor and prestige was regarded as such a desirable period in life that people would often exaggerate their age.

Since years meant accumulation of wisdom, the aged in Biblical society ranked with the princes and persons of high office as leaders of the people. “The elder and the man of rank, he is the head” (Isaiah 9:14).

In accordance with this high valuation of old age, one of the basic educational aims (there were, of course, several others as well) among the Biblical Hebrews was to instill, into the hearts of the young, respect for the aged in general and for parents in particular. As an emphatic Biblical commandment has it: “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head and honor the face of the old man” (Leviticus 19:32).

Another Biblical expression of the respect for age that undoubtedly would be welcome in many a modern family was the custom for the young to keep silent while the elders spoke. There is no express commandment requiring this, but it was the accepted practice, as can be seen from the scene in which the stricken Job is surrounded by his four friends who try to comfort him. Three of them are old, and the fourth, Elihu, is young. While the three old men spoke, Elihu kept silent: “Now Elihu had waited to speak unto Job, because they were older than he” (Job 32:4). And only when he saw that the older men had nothing more to say did he start speaking, prefacing his utterance with the following words: “I am young, and ye are very old; wherefore I held back, and durst not declare you mine opinion. I said: ‘Days should speak, and multitude of years teach wisdom’” (Job 32:6-7).

Overall, the Bible teaches that elder people, especially the father and mother, had to be paid special respect. The fifth Commandment enjoins upon everyone to honor his father and mother; and, as a reward for fulfilling this precept, it promises the greatest of all gifts: a long and prosperous life (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16).

More specifically, honoring one’s parents meant to “hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the teachings of thy mother” (Proverbs 1:8). “A wise son is instructed of his father” (Proverbs 13:1), while “a fool despiseth his father’s conviction” (Proverbs 15:5).

In fact, children were expected to fear and obey their parents (Leviticus 19:3). “Hearken unto thy father that begot thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22). Within the framework of the biblical extended family, the older the parents grew, the more descendants lived under their actual or nominal tutelage, the more respect they commanded in society as a whole and consequently, the more satisfaction they derived in the concluding period of their lives.

An old age spent thus as counselor and adviser whose words are respectfully listened to in the circle of one’s children and grandchildren, was indeed a time to look forward to. It was the crowning achievement after an active manhood or womanhood, rich in values that could more than compensate for physical weakness and failing health.

Old age with its honor and prestige was regarded as such a desirable period in life that people would often exaggerate their age. And by the time a chronicler came to record the life span of the first fathers and leaders of the Hebrew nation, these exaggerated figures were accepted as historical facts.

This is one of the explanations of the great ages appearing in the brief Biblical death notices: Sarah lived to be 127 (a traditional “round” figure, like the 127 provinces of Ahasuerus); Abraham 175; Isaac 180; Jacob 147; Moses 120.

So what is the lesson for today? I would suggest that younger persons be more willing to learn from and listen to their sage elders. Conversely, America’s senior citizens must refuse to become old in the sense of fossilizing their thinking. The future belongs to men and women who think. Thought dies when learning ceases. Life, if it has taught us anything, has taught us to learn at every age. Today, our nation yearns for leadership, and older Americans must not rest upon their laurels but, instead, exercise the leadership which is their right.

The above article is a shorted form of a Senior Citizen Month essay Brother Hanan wrote in May 1994 when he was Chairman of the Alabama Senior Citizen Hall of Fame Commission.

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