Perhaps, for some of us, a focus on us Elders for a 2023 New Year’s resolution is unexpectedly narrow, considering the massive chaos 2022 is boiling over into 2023.
But if we check out today’s music, the focus may make more sense. Music has a way of expressing our mood about what’s going on and our sensibilities.
I was ten years old when, on December 7, 1941, WWII enveloped our lives. That’s when much of the music I savor today began to be engrained in me. Ten of the thirty most played Christmas songs we cherish each year are songs from the 1940s. Many are war songs. During WWII, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if Only in My Dreams” was the most requested songs by soldiers at USO shows. Bing Crosby’s singing of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” topped 50 million copies. It’s the all-time biggest selling single recording. The December 30, 2022, issue of The Week Magazine reports that Crosby’s nephew “recalled Bing signing it in a WWII USO concert in France to ‘100,000 GIs in tears,’ many of whom would be ‘killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.’” And then there’s the 1944 “Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night of the Week),” a song about the painful separation of lovers. A decade after WWII, America was bogged down in the Vietnam war, and Pete Seegar wrote, and Peter, Paul and Mary had us singing, in protest, “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”
Yes, music speaks to us about what pleases us and what troubles us.
When I was growing up, “love” dominated popular music. That love was for the most part a gentle love, a caring love, a spiritual love. My favorite love song? “When I Fall in Love.” It’s been our anniversary celebration song ever since Joanie and I married in 1953. We’ll play it again this August on our 70th.
A few years ago, a University of Florida study concluded that the “love” that touched my soul when I was growing up is not the love of today’s tunes. Today’s version of love is raunchier, sexier – less emotional, more physical. There’s a “prevalence of bad language in today’s songs,” the UF study concludes, Today’s music is anything but gentle. It’s regurgitated on Google in dozens of articles, like “The 15 best songs with ‘F__k” in the title.”
I remember how shocking it was when, in 1939, Clark Gable said in Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” In 1948, when 25-year-old Norman Mailer wrote his WWII war novel, Naked and the Dead, which got deep into the hearts and language of the battlefield, the word “f__k” wasn’t acceptable for the printed page. His novel, one of the finest ever written about war, depicts the encounters of a platoon of soldiers fighting on an island in the Pacific, based in part on Mailer’s personal experiences. When his book-soldiers swore they swore “fug,” “fugged,” or “fugging.” Those tender days may be gone forever.
But there’s an interesting twist taking place today. It’s evident in our music. Today’s raunchy music is losing its punch. We seem to prefer an older, gentler love. Reports indicate that 70% of today’s music demand is for old songs. Furthermore, the percentage of oldies is increasing year-by-year. The top 200 most popular songs today account for only about 5% of the music streams, about half of what it was 3 years ago. Beyond music, we can also see the embryo of a societal refocus when we look at the surprising results of the 2022 mid-term election. (A subject for another day.)
All of which brings me to the Orca whales and us Elders. We both have something in common. We both live a long time after our child-bearing years. And its only humans, Orcas, and one other species of whales (pilot whales), that do this. Like humans, female Orcas live long after their reproductive years end at about age 40. They frequently live into their 90s, as more of us humans are beginning to do. Classic research predicts that this shouldn’t be so since long-term survival after child-bearing years does not advance species reproduction.
So, why? In a March 2015 Current Biology article titled “Ecological Knowledge, Leadership and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales,” after a nine-year study, researchers reported that they have begun to put together the answer: Wisdom.
The need of the young to be guided by the Wisdom of their Elders.
The elder female Orcas, who live longer than the males, use their knowhow to guide their offspring. Their most important leadership times are troubling times – like periods of food shortages. The young male Orca whales in particular are helped by elder leadership and without it the males die at earlier ages. The study reports:
“(P)ost reproductive females act as repositories of ecological knowledge and thereby buffer their kin against environmental hardships. … boost(ing) the fitness of kin through the transfer of ecological knowledge.
“The value gained from the wisdom of the elders can help explain why female resident killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing. … The wisdom benefits of age are likely to be widespread, and recent research has shown that older individuals in a range of taxa can improve the ability of groups to navigate, solve problems, and respond to potential dangers. … In humans, resident killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales, the benefits of helping therefore increase with age.”
What a challenge we Elders have! Our post-childrearing years have an essential evolutionary purpose, and the benefits are widespread: the sharing of our knowledge with future generations to improve the abilities of our young to solve problems, respond to danger, care for the future.
Yes, our retirement is a period for a modicum of self-indulgence, for us to travel to faraway places that we could never visit when we were young, to exploit our hobbies, and to tweak our imaginations with lifelong learning opportunities. Certainly, retirement is a time to indulge our “me genes.” But it’s also the time Mother Nature has set aside for us to architect the future of our offspring and our posterity with a healthy dose of our “we genes,” guiding the younger generations.
We guide our future generations with how we live our lives.
Author Richard Wagamese, a Canadian Ojibway, said it well: “All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey; we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”
When I wrote Wonderlust, I wrote in the Preface: “It’s never too late. We’re never too old to become young. We’re never too old to be guided by the willing hand of the Child Within. We’re never too old to tear away the bindings strapped tightly around our minds and our hearts, distorting our vision and cooling our passions.”
This troubled world needs us Elders to be Difference Makers for our children, our grandchildren, and for future generations. That’s our “we genes” in action. That’s the story we must write.
We too should come to understand that Our Story, Our Wisdom, is All That We Leave Behind. It is up to each of us, with how we live our lives, to write the best story we can.
There’s a reason that a video of the Judds’ singing “Grandpa (Tell Me About the Good Old Days)” has had over 42 million viewers since 1985. Its appeal represents the strong need among our offspring for the Wisdom of our Elders.
When you write your New Year’s Resolution for 2023, what will be your story?
What Will You Leave Behind?