Sociology Aries Asia and Aging and Family Issues Dissertation

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Go Gracefully Into That Good Night

The lucky among the human race share one fate: They get to enter the kingdom of the aged.

This is not -- at least in the United States -- generally the consensus view of aging. Good luck? To get old? Surely not. Wrinkles and hearing aids and trifocals? Who would want those?

Well, as the adage goes, consider the alternative.

That "alternative" is -- of course -- death. But this paper underscores the point that there are other alternatives. Not to death, of course, because death awaits us all, whether in infancy, childhood, adulthood, or senescence. But what awaits the lucky who get to the point of old age does not have to be a litany of ailments and weaknesses, of declines and depression. Old age brings its challenges in terms of both physical and mental health. But it brings its richnesses too. The question for each one of us is to find those veins of ore.

Unfortunately, this search for a rewarding and insightful old age depends on a number of factors that are not under the control of the individual. Just as the most useful quality that a person can have in becoming rich is to have rich parents, one of the most significant advantages in achieving an old age that is at least touched by grace as well as veined with sorrow is to be born into a culture that values the elderly.

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Each According to Her Talents

Dissertation on Sociology Aries Asia and Aging and Family Issues Assignment

Each person -- with the possible exception of true sociopaths, and scholars differ in regards to whether the true sociopath exists or whether she or he is simply the brain-child of the grocery-store-aisle thriller -- has something to contribute to society. In some measure, the contributions that each one of us can make arise from individual, idiosyncratic attributes. Some of us are good at designing bridges, others at buildings bridges, still others at painting those bridges. Such skills arise from the interaction of experience, training, education, and our genetic potential.

Other skills are assigned to us by our cultures. These in some measure (some of the time) reflect real physical abilities and limitations of the individual. But more often they reflect ideas in the society at hand about what is appropriate and proper for men and women, for the young and old, for the single, the married, the widowed. And it is in this nexus of individual potential and abilities and socially determined (and sometimes over-determined) role that there are alternatives for the elderly that often allow for a greater degree of grace than is usually afforded to the elderly in the United States and many Western European nations.

Before describing some of the advantages granted to the elderly in some societies -- like most Asian cultures -- it is important to note that these societies have their drawbacks as well. To a certain extent, societal, cultural, and familial resources are limited, and the ease of the elderly may come at the expense of members of younger generations.

Not Just Wisdom

The most obvious benefit that the elderly grant to society is that they have gained wisdom through their experiences. Those who take the time to listen to older members of their families, clans, villages, and other associations will gain immeasurably from their experiences. Societies that recognize that each older member of society is essentially a living library honor the elderly. For this reason, younger individuals in a society protect and support the elderly. But, it should be noted, the older members of such societies are not cared for and venerated simply because they can prove to be useful to younger members of society. They are also honored simply because old age is itself a honorable state.

The elderly have earned their valued place by virtue of being survivors. They have proven that they embody some of the most important qualities that any human has: They have faced all of the possible challenges that a long life will present to each one of us and demonstrated the intelligence, skills, psychological and emotional fortitude, physical strength and -- and this must never be discounted -- luck required to have kept the favor of the gods across many decades.

There is a concept in Polynesian religions of mana. The term is often used a little loosely to indicate something vaguely good or faintly sacred. But this is a distinct diminution of the concept. For mana is a deeply potent power. To be in the presence of someone who is in possession of mana (usually a member of a royal family or a priest) is to be in the presence of a powerful force for good. The concept is similar in many ways to the concept of grace within Christian doctrine. (The most important difference between the ideas of mana and grace is that mana is derived from being in the presence of the living while Christian grace requires a death.)

For those societies in which the elderly are honored for their wisdom, for their status as survivors of the many difficulties of life, and the fact that their old age demonstrates clearly that they have the favor of the gods, the old are hosts to the power of mana. To be in their presence is to be in the presence of individuals who can bless others by their presence.

Of course, the elderly have limitations as well, and even in those societies such as traditional Chinese society in which the elderly are as honored as they are in any human social system or culture, there is a recognition of these limitations. Elderly women cannot give birth to children -- and older men, for that matter, are less likely to be able to become fathers. The very old are not the ideal people to plow under a new field, or to cut and carry firewood. Their eyes may not make them the best fighter pilots, or their hands may not be steady enough to be surgeons. But societies understand this. And well-run, highly functional societies have enough grace in them to honor both the young worker in the field and the old worker overseeing the household altar.

Religious Underpinnings of Honoring the Aged

Societies in which the elderly generally have a higher position often has a religious system that helps support this position. This is hardly surprising, for cultures are in general highly integrated. A society in which the elderly are given a significant amount of power in the family and the government is also likely to have a religion in which the elderly have important roles. Thus the religious of traditional Asian societies such as Shintoism and Confucianism tend to honor those who possess traits that the elderly are likely to have: A long memory, well-developed analytical skills, a sense of the important stories of the culture and of the gods.

It is also true, of course, that the elderly are not simply the gracious but essentially passive recipients of societies that honor them. For it is true that whichever group -- or groups -- are most honored by a society comprises individuals that receive favorable treatment. And it is equally true that humans are inclined to promote those social and cultural conditions that promote their own welfare. Thus the elderly are likely to support social conditions, laws, and norms that are to their advantage.

The above statement might seem as if it were meant as a criticism of older people. But this is anything but the case. There is a traditional Jewish proverb: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, then who am I?" This is an extremely useful framework with which to view the issue of how the elderly can flourish in a society that also has room and grace for people of other generations also to flourish.

However -- to turn the above statement around one more time -- it is also true that sometimes the elderly do impose on younger generations. Simply because someone is older does not in any way guarantee that she or he is good or generous or kind -- anymore than there is any guarantee that someone who is physically disabled or a racial minority is going to be compassionate or kind because his or her own experiences are likely to have taught the importance of compassion and tolerance.

Whose Voice Is Privileged?

In the same vein, it is important to understand that societies that are praised for their treatment of the elderly are generally privileging the voices of the elderly themselves. For example, a woman in many traditional Asian societies will participate in an exogamous marriage, one in which she marries out of and away from her own family and moves into the household and village of her new husband and his family. This places her under the power not only of her new husband but of her new mother-in-law. This older woman… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Sociology Aries Asia and Aging and Family Issues.  (2010, October 27).  Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

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"Sociology Aries Asia and Aging and Family Issues."  October 27, 2010.  Accessed July 11, 2020.