Note: Eli is my counter-culture alter ego, who was introduced in “How Eli got his name” a couple of blogs ago.
RR: Hey, Eli, I’m back from my summer travels and ready to start blogging again.
Eli: Welcome home.
RR: One of the high points of the trip was catching a big salmon off the coast of Northern California. My son Daniel and I went out from Humboldt Bay with one of his friends who has a boat and knows fishing in that area. We had three licenses and three lines, but Daniel’s friend set up everything from the back of the boat, because he didn’t want us to get all tangled up.
Eli: Cool, I guess. At least you caught something.
RR: Yeah, that’s the point. It was easy to let him take charge because he obviously knew what he was doing, and it struck me that things don’t usually work like that in the world beyond fishing. I mean, everyone thinks they know how to run things best, and they generally don’t think of anyone as really competent. I’m sure there are exceptions, but that’s the dominant attitude, and it seems to be the worst in spiritual matters.
Eli: Hmm, what do you mean?
RR: A couple thousand years ago, Rabban Gamliel said, “Get yourself a teacher” (Pirke Avot 1:16), but current spirituality is so subjective that people think no one else can tell them what’s right or wrong. So no one wants to be mentored or learn from the more experienced hands. And then there’s this pervasive cynicism about anyone really being competent, which just tries to shoot the authorities or potential authorities full of holes. I mean in spiritual matters, there’s such a thing as elders—folks that have gone before and been in this pursuit for a while—and the younger folks are supposed to learn from them.
For years I’ve heard older people say that when you get old, you become invisible. People act like you’re not even there. In some of my recent travels, I’m finally starting to notice that on a first-person level. I don’t feel very old, but as I told one of my friends, you’re only as old as you feel . . . until you look in the mirror.
Eli: Yeah, in my student days there was this really old guy (like in his 70s) who used to hang around on campus, and it was a big deal that we paid attention to him. I mean he was pretty interesting, a Wobbly in his early years [a member of Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union], and still wearing Depression-era work clothes and a cool, beat-up fedora. He was short and slight with a crooked smile that showed his missing front teeth. He was definitely Other, but the kind of Other you can warm up to.
RR: So you didn’t act like he wasn’t there, but it sounds like he was the exception that proves the rule.
Eli: I guess so. I remember one night when he actually came into our dorm room (I think we were smoking pot at the moment) and sat down with us. He was carrying around a saw and asked us if we wanted to hear him play it. Sure enough, he got out a violin bow and extracted this eerie, beautiful, high-pitched melody line out of that plain old carpenter’s saw. I still remember his toothless grin as he looked up at the end of the tune. . . . But he was a lot older than you are now.
RR: Well, thanks, but my point is that it’s no longer cool to listen to older folks or get any kind of mentoring from them. There’s this recurrent myth in movies and articles about young people throwing off the hypocrisy and compromise of the old-timers to save the world. You hear the same rhetoric in the religious world. It’s the bread-and-butter of youth ministry.
Eli: Right, and the problem is . . .? I mean, you’re just protesting that story now because you’re on the way to becoming the old-timer yourself. You probably used to believe it yourself.
RR: Perhaps; it’s been around for decades, but it does seem to have gained a lot of strength over time. A few decades back it was radical to stand up against the older generation, but now that message is positively mainstream. I think the real radicalism would be to promote the biblical message of honoring your elders, respecting authority, seeking out a mentor to help you find the road. Instead we’re still telling the elders, “Your old road is rapidly agin.’ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand. The times they are a-changin’.”
Eli: Well, at least he said “please!” Besides, I don’t know how inspiring it is to young people to hear about learning from the old-timers.
RR: You got a hint of inspiration from listening to the old Wobbly back in college. Besides, the message that the new generation is going to save the world is a set-up for disillusionment, because it never really happens. The new generation doesn’t learn anything from the old, and then drifts into the same compromise and mediocrity that it decried a few years back. The edgy message is often the most inspiring, and honoring past generations is way edgier—and more biblical—than glorifying youth for its own sake. “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). Radical stuff.