One of our greatest challenges in life and maturity is to see the world through other eyes, empathize with how other people feel. There are limits to it. A man may, with significant effort, apply the assumptions of femaleness to life, and see that life somewhat through her eyes. An adult may quite easily see the world through a child’s eyes, having once owned a pair. A white person will probably strain to empathize with the experience of being black, but to a degree, it can be done. Most of this is really a matter of thinking things through: what would it be like for the other person, and what attitudes, preferences and behaviors does this explain?
One firm bar exists that I do not think we can breach: age. I’m 48. At 24, half a life ago, I could not have conceived how it felt to be double my age, much less quadruple. This, it seems, only years confer. My grandmother is 92, nearly double my current age. The impact of the changes, cycles, generations, the sheer accumulated mass of people she has known, the realization that a vast percentage of them have passed on, the icy reality that even in excellent health and with much luck, the clock of life ticks ahead, these I believe are beyond me despite the greatest effort I might make.
This is why it’s good to talk to people older than ourselves. They simply know things we do not. Even a glimmer of their realizations is precious to those of us younger. And once those realizations fall silent and still with the passing of life, or fade into forgetfulness or loss of mind, they are lost and gone forever. There will be others, but that set of memories and that gathered mass of realization is no longer available.
I think of this sometimes when working with older clients, and as I become elder myself. Much is there to learn, and to teach if people wish to learn.
I will share with you one bit of that elderly wisdom I gathered up, just over half a lifetime ago. It was the time Queen Elizabeth II came to UW for a visit, and ROTC cadets and midshipmen were invited to volunteer to help the police and Secret Service with security. There’s a lot else about the story, but the pertinent part here is where we were assigned to help usher people to their seats.
Well, the bleachers at Hec Ed are not always an easy climb for the ancient and frail. Noting a very elderly lady struggling to get up to her place, a NROTC midshipman and I simultaneously arrived at her sides. We somewhat helped and somewhat lifted the lady up the bleachers into her seat. An unremarkable act of duty in itself, but what was remarkable was her eyes, eyes that had known at least four British monarchs despite Her Majesty’s considerable longevity. As we set her down gently on the varnished wood, she looked at each of us in turn with an intensity that pierced the soul. She said quietly but very firmly, “Thank you, you young gentlemen. Someday, someone will do this for you.”
You’re welcome, ma’am, but I wasn’t the giver. What I gave was insignificant in comparison to what I received.