Respecting Your Elders

Respect for elders is a tradition deeply rooted within most cultures in this world. This is as it should be; older people, generally speaking, have accumulated the wisdom gained from years of experience. Does the progressive movement have any unique or particular perspectives to add to this general rule?

I’ve been thinking about this since a couple of recent experiences. One was hearing Matt Jones, long-time singer, musician and activist going back to the Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement, sing his haunting song with the lines, “who’d have thought I’d still be fighting 30 or 40 years down the line.” The other was attending a reunion of members of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (which has been pretty much non-existent for 15 or more years) during the evening just before the huge Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City June 11.

Matt, the PSP’ers and myself all have in common histories going back decades in the struggle for justice and freedom. None of us has given up, and there are many, many more like us around the world, literally millions. Does this give us any special consideration by younger activists, any special respect? Do those who have been in this struggle for four or five decades or longer automatically deserve respect from those who have spent less time in the struggle?

On one level, yes, absolutely. One thing the progressive movement must be about is mutual respect for one another, human interaction at a positive, qualitatively superior level. If this is the way we are functioning, then it will naturally follow that those who have given long years of their lives fighting for a new world will be given an extra measure of respect by those who are younger.

But respect is not the same thing as hero worship, and respect has to be a two-way street. Further, those who once made major contributions when younger are not always fully up to the task later on in life. Perspectives, world views, ideologies that are developed in the first decades of a person’s life can leave a person out-of-touch in later decades if those perspectives become rigid and inflexible. The strain and stress of daily living over the course of many years, not to mention political setbacks and disappointments, can turn the most hopeful young people into skeptical, cautious or even negative older veterans of the struggle.

Popular movements aren’t built on negativity and caution. They need, absolutely need, youthful energy and enthusiasm. If the older, more experienced leaders can’t communicate positively with others in the movement, our efforts will be in danger of sputtering and eventually dying out.

The question is: how can we build a movement which helps to keep all of us “young at heart and in spirit,” even if not in the joints and the muscles?

One way is by rejecting the hard-line, mechanistic and dogmatic approaches that have often been standard operating procedure on the left. More specifically, we need to build a movement that welcomes those who have a spiritual grounding to their personal lives, who take the cultivation and development of their spirituality seriously. These people often have important insights to contribute that can help our organizations “lighten up” and stay humane. Even if the movement itself is “secular” and non-religious, which is as it should be, in general, it cannot be anti-religious, anti-spiritual. This way lies disaster.

We need to integrate music, art, poetry and other forms of culture deeply and intimately into how we go about our work. We should begin and end our meetings with a song! We should honor and respect those who take seriously the development of their cultural skills because they want to use them to help build a positive movement for social change.

We need to encourage the development of a wholistic movement which linked to the natural world, which treats our Mother Earth as the source of life that it is. We need to learn from cultures like those of Native Americans that have much to teach us in this regard.

Finally, we need to be good at more than just organizing, analysis and agitation. We also need to be good at personal interaction with one another and with those we are outreaching to. We need to be known not just for our good work on issues but for the way in which we help others who are in need.

If we can do these things, all of us will benefit personally. As significantly, we will be building the kind of movement that has a realistic chance over the long haul of making this country what it can be, what it has to be.