My Turn: The ancient task of finding light amid the darkness


Published: 05-13-2023 10:28 PM

Though I don’t claim the same sort of depression I suffered as a young person when I was fearful of ever finding a safe and nourishing place in the world for myself, I am sad. Stunned daily by so many cruel events, and in near continual mourning. But less for myself than for the desecration of the earth and the terrible suffering of so many living beings around the globe.

That small insistent self has finally, at times, been absorbed into the universal pain.

Most elders I know feel this same sadness. We are distraught. Distressed. Enraged. But we also feel an obligation, as elders always have, to pass on at least a smidgeon of wisdom, something of value we have learned from a long life.

What words can we conjure for the young amid the present overwhelming chaos? What can we say to alleviate the anxiety of living in an era when, for the first time in human history, the entire planet is threatened with endless violence and climate disaster?

I remember the happy times my own grandmother predicted for me and her hope I would have a meaningful future. I tried to paint similar pictures for my own grandchildren. Generations of grandmothers have done so.

Haven’t grandparents always been desperate to comfort and encourage the young, the innocent? Haven’t we clawed the shelves of the now near empty pantries for all the old adages, those semblances of truth conjured over centuries, many embedded in the fairy tales we loved to hear and loved to tell?

Those shadowy half-truths, like the prince’s kiss and the fortuitous escape from an evil witch and the magical animal who breaks a monster’s spell, held us hostage once — stories now impossible to trust, as death in the form of floods and droughts and fires and horrendous inequalities leer at us from even the metaphoric corner candy store.

Where we once gathered a fantasy of gumdrops in an infinitude of gaudy hues: licorice sticks that glistened ebony, chicken corn that rattled in our pockets on our way home from school. Necco wafers. Gumdrops. Charleston Chews. We were promised bright colors. Sweetness. Forgetfulness.

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What can we tell children today? Should today’s grandmothers merely draw their curtains, sit alone and pray to be forgiven their gentle lies and pray that our children understand our promises were born out of love?

No. Never. Now love for our young is forcing us to find new words, offer new tales that somehow do not lie but do not smash all hope and expectations that often lead the young into the dark depressions that many are experiencing already.

Lisel Mueller in her poem about reading the Grimm brothers to her granddaughter says; “Jenny we make just dreams out of our unjust lives.” This is the ancient task of elders.

Allen Woods in his persuasive April 15 column about artificial intelligence [“I can’t believe my eyes!”] pointed out that human beings have an awe-inspiring capacity “to communicate complex thoughts, which is at least as important as an opposable thumb in our evolution.” We are able to think, to create new ideas and weave them into new dreams and new psychic realities.

Can we elders discover new stories that provide the young with sustenance in the face of threatening deprivations and the ever-mounting fears implicit in these chaotic times?

We are hardly the first people in the thousands of years of human history whose children and grandchildren were born into terrible times. There are the children of slavery and racism, of economic serfdom, and those of brutally displaced Indigenous peoples. Their livelihoods are continually being destroyed by reckless invaders, developers, and warmongers.

Yet we know that many, perhaps the majority of those folks, survive with dignity and grace. They find a perspective that preserves some degree of peace of mind. One must believe that our generation too will find a way to support and encourage the generations to come.

Margot Fleck lives in Northfield.