Friday, August 12, 2011

Youth, Midlife and Eldership; Some Thoughts About the US

To start, a Zen koan:

There were two monks fighting over a cat. A more senior monk came in and told them that if they could not agree as to whose cat it was, he would cut the cat in half, and each would get half. The monks continued to argue, so the senior monk took out his knife, cut the cat in half, and handed half to each of them. About that time, the head monk came in and saw and heard what had happened. He took off his sandal and put it on his head and walked out backwards.

Upside down and backwards seems to be the way we are approaching problems these days. The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people and that money is speech. While this may be OK in a small realm, we seem to have forgotten that moreover people are people, and the words and actions of people are speech.

But maybe people, corporations and nations are all like people:

A lot of the ideas I am going to present here are ripped off pretty directly from Angeles Arrien, a brilliant anthropologist and spiritualist, who has presented a lot of material I have studied over the past few years about the second half of life. We incorporated her Second Half of Life story into our wedding vows a couple years ago, when we were married at middle-age, and I would recommend this book heartily to one and all. I would also recommend Marianne Williamson's The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife to people in that realm of their lives, as well.

But I digress.

Anyone who has studied psychology is familiar with developmental milestones and stages of development. Eric Ericson has laid this out very clearly in his work, and so I will also rip him off. In fact, here is a nice link that outlines his stages:

Some of the stages we encounter in youth, where we encounter most of our development are such issues as: trust versus mistrust; autonomy versus shame and doubt; Initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus role confusion; and intimacy versus isolation.

Midlife is about generativity versus self-absorption and stagnation, the strength being protection and care.

Eldership is about integrity versus despair, the strength being wisdom.

Angeles Arrien took these ideas and applied them to nations. She noticed that the older nations, particularly Asian countries, Native America, and parts of Africa not ravaged by war were elder countries. In these countries, she pointed out, people value wisdom. Elders in these countries are typically respected and live with their extended families. These countries value education. (In Japan all of the people on their money are teachers!)

She noticed that the developed European countries were midlife countries, where they offer protections and care to their people in terms of highly developed social programs. (In Norway, they even have a state philosopher who tries to think of the implications of decisions being made on all people and future generations!)

And the US is a bunch of wild cowboys. We are somewhere between adolescence and adulthood as a country. We are looking for our identity. Like young people, we, as a nation, don't care about the elderly or listen to what they have to say. I can picture an adolescent telling off his mother, as we reject proven idea that have worked well in other countries. Like a bunch of adolescents, we seem to be reinventing the wheel over and over, and when it works well, we scrap the idea and start over again. We are torn apart as a nation by our egocentric values. People want to look out for themselves, and not for others. We don't share toys well. You get the idea.

I think looking at this model puts what is going on, politically, into a context that makes a lot of sense.

We seem to be at the point now where a number of us are reaching middle age, but there are a lot who are fighting that idea., and want to return to their childhood, "a simpler time," as many Tea Partiers remark. And so we find ourselves in this predicament as some of us try to grow as a nation, and some try to regress. Relating to humans again, while some of us settle into the comfort of middle age, some of us are buying new sports cars and trying to pick up younger chicks. Perhaps this is the rocky time in peoples' relationships where many get divorced. As a nation, we haven't considered that option.

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