Years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with a Second World War pilot. He’d flown Lancaster bombers during the war and later went on to build a charter business that flew the great and the good all over the globe in Lear jets.
He was a modest man, yet singularly impressive, and he, at the age of 91, taught me lessons about the nature of courage that I’d never even considered.
I also recall another elderly person, an 88-year-old First Nations woman, who told me stories of her time in a residential school.
Eighty years had passed since she’d been kidnapped by the government and she spoke about having her long hair cut off and how she was doused with kerosene to kill lice she didn’t have. She cried at the memories. At that moment I learned more about the need for reconciliation than would have been possible through scores of political speeches.
I’ve spoken to a man who, in 1958, was beaten in Atlanta when he dared to sit at the “whites-only” section of a diner. He told me how what he remembered most about the beating was the white mother and her child watching as he was kicked in the street, and how she smiled. That conversation reminded me about how far we’d come in race relations, and how far we still have to go.
All these conversations came back to me recently as I wrote about a new program that’s been launched to combat loneliness among the elderly.
The idea is to match seniors with volunteers who will take the time to offer a little companionship to the elderly clients of the program.
It’s in response to the fact that loneliness and isolation are endemic among Canadian seniors and, while the program is obviously necessary and one that I support, there’s a wee part of me that is saddened at the need for the program at all.
For millennia, the accumulated wisdom of older people was the key to human survival.
Without the benefit of a largely literate society, it was the spoken wisdom of the aged that kept us from making the same mistakes that had led to the untimely demise of some of our forebearers.
The elderly were revered and their stories and experiences were sought out and valued.
These days, young people with questions are more likely to turn to Google than Grandma or Grampa.
It’s a pity.
They’ll not find the answer to how to figure out what’s important in life from Google.
Questions about how to face the trials of life, the importance of family, how to remember to laugh, the true nature of forgiveness, and how to recognize how little you really know and what’s important in life won’t be found on-line.
Those lessons and more, however, can be found in the stories told by the elderly, if we’re only willing to listen.