Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Long Goodbye

I saw an interview with Harry Belefonte on Charlie Rose recently.  Especially since he's promoting his autobiography, Belefonte talked about his fascinating life, in music and film but mostly in politics.  He has a long history of activism, that extends back to Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King.  When the subject of President Obama came up, Belefonte expressed disappointment.  In the Bush years he was especially critical of the homeland security measures that stifled civil liberties and threatened to enact a kind of military state.  So he was especially upset about what he viewed as the lack of progress in reigning in those programs.

I can understand his disappointments, though not their extent--the idea that he can't locate President Obama's "moral center" seems specious to me.  But I did recognize the intense feeling behind another complaint: he said that President Obama has never talked with him.  He has never sought out his counsel or even asked about his experiences in those intense and important decades.  All his hard-won lessons remain unexpressed, and unheard by someone who could greatly benefit from hearing them.

I understand that.  On a different scale and perhaps with less reason, it is a feeling common to people who have decades of experience, and retain the judgment and ability to express those judgments.  But no one wants to hear this.  Moreover it is a paradox of this age that while people on average are living longer, they are marginalized earlier.  In an increasing number of occupations, you're finished when you're fifty.  If you aren't the CEO or filthy rich, no one will listen to you at all once you've passed 60.

When people stop listening to you, when they stop expressing any interest or admiration in what you present in whatever form they used to pay attention to, it does not go unnoticed, often consciously, but always deep within.  Once a sense of usefulness ebbs, so does much else.  It supports a general drift towards a state of marking time, essentially waiting to die. 

Certainly there is a change.  With age comes more interest in depth.  Less interest in new songs, more interest in listening to the old ones more deeply (and hearing the lyrics as new, now.)  Memories come unbidden even when new names escape.  All this can mean a mastery of a greater extent of time, of their patterns, and developing a more informed perspective.  That in itself should be valuable, for one thing that becomes evident is the penchant to repeat mistakes.  Yet no one seems interested.  Perhaps the answer to that lies in trying harder to make the form of such expressions more seductive.  Still, as a more general reaction, it is discouraging. 

I remember the old men I saw as a child.  Some were loud and unhinged, and they were definitely scary.  But most were silent, and that was a little scary, too. These were often the older men in families I was somehow related to, that we would visit from time to time. They stayed on the edge of things, letting the women take care of family relations.  They even drank quietly, alone or with other old men.  Their lives among others were over. 

I'm beginning to understand those old men.