Age Cannot Wither Them, Nor Custom Stale Their Infinite Variety

In the “Lemon of Troy” episode of the Simpsons, Bart and his little friends are in the midst of some noisy debate when Grandpa Simpson begins to speak. Milhouse says, in awe, “Hey, an old man is talking!” All the children immediately quiet down and sit on the grass, looking at Abe Simpson happily in anticipation of wit and wisdom from their elder.

It’s a great comic moment because so many people, old and young, value the company of the young more than that of the old. Young people are fresh, original and exciting and old people are boring, and, well, old. For example, Larry McMurtry whinges in this month’s Spectator about once going to a swish Hollywood party and getting “stuck” at a table with Jimmy Stewart and other “gerontological cases” while other guests got the chance to chat up Madonna.

Just as I cannot relate to people who dread old age, neither do I identify with those who view contact with the elderly as a chore. Had I been sitting next to Madonna at that Hollywood party, I would have swapped my spot with McMurtry unhesitatingly to get to talk to Jimmy Stewart. Stewart could tell me about his experiences struggling to make good in 1930s Hollywood, his subsequent stardom, his military service as a bomber pilot, and his friendships with other great actors such as Henry Fonda. Whatever Madonna would say couldn’t compete in my eyes.

There are many valuable things that old people can bring to conversation, but the greatest gift I think is that they can tell us about the times when we weren’t yet alive. Younger people can tell me what it’s like to be young now, which is not uninteresting, but I’d much rather hear the stories and perspective of someone who preceded me in history. It’s like learning from someone who has traveled to a country I have only heard of, and who can through their superior knowledge transform how I think about where and how I live.

Among my most vivid experiences of this sort was a discussion about 1950s Britain with someone slightly younger than me. What a wretched time, we agreed: Austerity that makes the current version look like luxury, ration books, stuffy social mores, few career opportunities for women etc. And then an 80-year old sitting next to us said “I loved the 1950s”. A bit surprised, I asked why.

He smiled peacefully and said “A whole decade without a world war. It made all of us so happy.”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Age Cannot Wither Them, Nor Custom Stale Their Infinite Variety”

  1. Amen, and amen.

    When my family lived in Hilo, my grandfather came to visit us for a couple of weeks. During the immediate post-December 7 period, he was in Honolulu working on the rebuilding and expansion of Pearl Harbor and Hickham Field. I wish I had had the sense to record all of the stories he told of that time. I treasure the memories of the time spent with him, and the memories I have of his tales.

  2. I guess that’s why I could barely finish two or three pages in a McMurtry novel without yawning and putting it down for good. I doubt Dan Jenkins, another Southern writer who is drop down funny, would ever say he’d rather sit next to Madonna than Jimmy Stewart.

  3. Given that this anecdote must be decades old (Stewart died in 1997), the contrast is even more striking. I have no great insight into Madonna but cannot imagine what I would say to a young pop star whose career was still in the ascent. Although I would prefer sitting with Stewart to Madonna, I would likewise choose to sit with an older Madonna over her younger self or the current equivalent… (Ke$ha?).

  4. I’ll be honest, more often than not old people are terribly boring storytellers:

    Do you really think Jimmy Stewart would tell you an interesting story? I think he would have rambled about how back in his day everything was so great because that Cecil B. Demille would run his set like a watch oh boy just like a watch. A really well made watch, you know one of those hand crafted Swiss one, not one of those cheap things that people buy these days that you wear for a little while and then the battery dies. Well back in my day you wound a watch. What’s wrong with winding watches? Nothing, that’s what. What’s wrong is the kids these days are too lazy to wind a watch. So they buy these battery powered watches. And now look at them. Dressing like that Madonna. I mean she wears her underwear on the outside! What a disgrace! Why you wouldn’t catch a starlet in my day dressing like that. No. No people would say what’s wrong with her? Where’s her class? Why none at all. Because she wears her underwear outside like that. You see what I’m saying? Back in my day we wound our watches.

    You see my point?

    1. Very funny, Benny.

      As a related matter, I’ve read, somewhere, that Madonna is actually quite an intelligent and interesting person, public image notwithstanding.

      1. Beg to disagree; people who think they invented sex are always boring as hell.

  5. Also, what World War happened in the 60s-today that didn’t happen in the 50s? I mean if Vietnam is a world war because of the Cold War then surely the Korean War was a world war as well. In fact many scholars consider the Cold War to be World War 3. So yeah, I don’t respect old people at all because they have nuggets of wisdom like that.

    1. The 60s weren’t being discussed when the old man made his observation. The topic under discussion at the moment he made his observation was how wretched the 1950s had been in Britain. Keith does not tell us when this conversation occurred, but if it was more than 15 years ago, 2 of the octogenarian’s decades (3 if we include 1939) had included world wars, and 2 had included the Great Depression (I’m counting the whole interwar period as the GD in the UK). If this conversation took place before 1980, the old man likely remembered both world wars, and the interwar period. The 50s would have been golden then, for any reasonable person.

  6. Perhaps it not generic elderly that are the chore, but specific elderly folks related to you.
    The stories that are repeated again lose their joy.

  7. Is age really the difference here? After watching Stewart on screen for many enjoyable hours and trying to watch Madonna in her couple of dreadful movies (don’t even mention her embarrassing music videos) my choice between spending time with even a young Stewart or a veteran Modonna would not give a second of pause.
    Unquestionably Madonna is brilliant at constructing curious and shocking persona to market her shows but they are as deep as a plastic shell.
    Stewart’s characterizations seemed to draw from a well of interest in human emotion. No doubt that well got deeper with age but the interest was core to his personality even as a young man.

  8. To me, McMurtry’s complaint sounds like not so much ageism (although it is that) as the typical star-[censored]ing mentality that is so common in the entertainment industry. Almost every major event has a complicated hierarchy of seating, and the “best” seats are those proximate to the biggest stars (and especially starlets) of the moment. The velvet rope is an iron curtain.

    Interestingly, we saw a recent example of Washington’s version of that phenomenon– the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

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