Sometime shortly after the birth of his first child, a mutant gene activates the “advice” instinct in the male’s brain. Especially in the case of male offspring, we offer hand-me-down wisdom as evidence of our parental dutifulness.
This grows old fast for the younger generation, but for most fathers it simply signals the need for reinforcement by repetition—so much so that by the time many men can actually take (and perhaps even want) advice, our communication filters are clogged.
The sad irony is that even as we ruefully acknowledge this cycle, we are approaching something of a professional watershed. More of us are arriving at a point in our lives that Dad is unable or not present to annotate.
Traditional lifestyles such as farming accord considerable respect to experiential knowledge. We watch our predecessors to learn from their successes and stumbles. But this system breaks down toward the end of our now longer life spans. Indeed, many farmers outlive their fathers by decades. What pattern do they use to emulate, avoid or anchor their own judgment? More importantly, when they reach those later birthdays, to what do they compare their own confused reflections?
One quick example: When my father retired and moved to Florida, he would have breakfast regularly with the other retired guys. One morning, I joined them—to my regret. The conversation turned after a time to their collective health, and “symptom competition” took over. I came away queasily concerned about my own future.
Wisdom of the Elders. Fast-forward 20 years: Gross and medically inaccurate as that conversation was, it remained remarkably clear in my memory as I began to experience my own senior symptoms. Given the male aversion to routine medical care, ignorance-based diagnoses are given credence by default. I suspect this pattern applies to other aspects of aging as well.
Perhaps advice becomes more valuable the closer we come to the end. I rummage through my memory for even casual comments my father made about being the age I am now and kick myself for not listening closer.
What did he find surprising about growing older? How did he and Mom help each other during that time? What did he stop caring about? What did he worry about that had never bothered him before? Looking back, how did he view his life, and to what standard did he compare his actions? How did he see his responsibility to me?
The Struggles of Aging. I have learned that growing older changes our fear spectrum. Fear of looking foolish because of diminished capabilities, however slight, prompts many men to resort to the camouflage role of a curmudgeon. At the same time, indifference to the judgment of others as we age can cause us to become coarse and unkind.
Too many grasp the reins of power more tightly in an attempt to prove they have not weakened—and often because they have no other example to follow. Modern levels of competition do not tolerate having less than the best minds in charge, however.
Advice like “Don’t ever plant before April 5th” is all very well, but comments like “Be prepared to welcome a whole new group of friends” take on greater value to me now that I am older.
As our species writes new chapters on the experience of aging, maintaining the struggle to communicate downstream would at the least provide some landmarks. We already have much to dread: infirmity, disregard, lack of status. What we are often missing are clues to how so many before us mastered these challenges with unassuming discipline and courage, as well as considerable happiness.
- December 2010